Category Archives: Publications

Edwin Wong’s Articulation of Personal Research Activity (Risk Theatre)

Canadian Association of Theatre Research Conference (CATR) “Partition/Ensemble”

May 25th-28th 2020 Montreal, Canada

The Articulations of Division and Unity: Re-evaluating Practices of Artistic Research Seminar

Concordia University and Université du Québec à Montréal

Natalia Esling and Bruce Barton Co-Curators

 

Hi Everyone, my name is Edwin Wong. Like many of you, I arrived at theatre off the beaten path. I’m a classicist who studied ancient theatre with Laurel Bowman at the University of Victoria (’04 BA Greek and Roman Studies) and David Konstan at Brown University (’07 MA Classics). My favourite old-time tragedy is Aeschylus’ Seven Against Thebes—of all the plays in the tragic canon, it’s the only one where you can work out the odds of all the actual and contrafactual outcomes. That’s fascinating because I study the impact of highly improbable events. I was born in 1974, so that makes me 45. I live in Victoria, BC where I work as a project manager for PML Professional Mechanical. We build hospitals, schools, office buildings, submarine hangers, condos, you name it.

In commercial construction, “Mechanical” refers not to cars, but to an umbrella of trades: plumbing, sheet metal, fire sprinklers, insulation, firestop, refrigeration, and controls. Mechanical—alongside electrical, glazing (windows), concrete, wall board, gypsum wall board, and many others—is one of the divisions of construction that come together to build the buildings you see around you. Project managers are a liaison between designers (architects and engineers) and the trades installing the work. As a project manager, I look after contracts, changes, construction schedules, and mitigate risk. I’m a Red Seal plumber by trade. That means I’ve completed a four year apprenticeship.

I enjoy reading books outside my field of study, especially books on financial speculation, market bubbles, and stock market collapses. Favourites include Lowenstein’s The Rise and Fall of Long-Term Capital Management (how an overleveraged hedge fund founded by two Nobel winners brought the global economic system to a stop), Bernstein’s Against the Gods: The Remarkable Story of Risk, and Taleb’s The Black Swan: The Impact of the Highly Improbable. Perhaps it’s from my work and reading interests that the focus of my artistic research is to explore what happens in drama when risk becomes the fulcrum of the action.

The current focus of my artistic research began in winter 2006 when I came across trader/mathematician/philosopher Taleb’s first book, Fooled by Randomness: The Hidden Role of Chance in Life and the in the Markets. It was sitting in the economics section of the big Borders bookstore in Providence, Rhode Island. His book argued that low-probability, high-consequence events shape life more than we think. Wall Street traders triggered devastating low-probability, high-consequence events by taking on inordinate risks. I thought: “Isn’t this what happens in tragedy? Macbeth triggers Birnam Wood coming to Dunsinane Hill—an exceedingly low-probability event—by taking on too much risk.” I spent the next twelve years perfecting a theory of tragedy where risk drives the action and I called the theory “risk theatre.”

When Great Recession—a product of excessive risk taking—hit in 2008, I realized how the scale of human ambition in finance, politics, warfare, technology, and science makes risk a timely topic. Theatre could capitalize on this by simulating risk on the stage. My risk theatre theory of tragedy would provide a template for playwrights who wanted to engage with risk.

When I started writing and researching the book, I was working at Bayside Mechanical. I would try my ideas of risk on my colleagues in the office. We talked about construction risks, and this influenced the book. In construction, sequencing the trades is critical. Before the steel studs go in, mechanical installs or “roughs in” the drainage pipes and potable water distribution. Studs go in, and then electrical and mechanical finish putting in their pipes, ducts, and conduits. Then drywall goes up. Because construction schedules are compressed, when a delay in one part of the process occurs (for example, if cold temperatures delay pouring a suspended concrete slab), the delays cascade down the chain, affecting all the trades, and the day delay in the pour ends up setting back the construction schedule not one day, but two weeks. This type of risk is called “tight-coupling,” and from discussions with other project managers, became a sub-chapter in the book. To illustrate it, an example from Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet was used: the letter carrier to Verona just happens to be quarantined, delaying Friar Lawrence’s letter to Romeo. But, because Friar Lawrence’s plan is tight-coupled (the end result relies on many events happening in perfect sequence), the failure of one small part of the plan creates an unexpected and dramatic low-probability, high-consequence event: two suicides instead of one wedding.

The language of my book provides an example of how diverse perspectives change the flavour of research. In addition to talking to other project managers and engineers, I would run my ideas by the tradespeople. When they were hanging cast iron pipe, I would tell the tradespeople about literary theory. When they would review the blueprints, I would tell them about the art form of tragedy. When they were having coffee, I would chat with them about risk. If you read my book—and I hope that you will—you’ll find that, compared to other books on literary theory, the language is straightforward. In my book, you’ll find many construction analogies. For example, my theory of tragedy is likened to a set of blueprints construction workers use to build a house. Many of the ideas were run by the tradespeople at work. To get the ideas across, I would present them in a straightforward language using construction metaphors. Much of this vernacular makes it into the book. As a result, even though my book contains literary theory, it’s accessible to people from all walks of life.

The traditional paradigm of theatre research is that if you’re not part of an academic department or a theatre, you’re unable to contribute to the discussion. You’re out in the wilderness, and the wilderness will reclaim you. Sort of like historian Arnold Townbee’s “Appalachian effect” where, if an advanced society settles the Appalachia, in a few generations, despite whatever refinements it had, will revert back to nature due to its geographic isolation. There’s some truth to this. Without the support from the community, it’s hard to keep going. But I think, if you’re not part of the establishment, and you’re able to keep going, you’ll be able to bring new perspectives into an established art. New blood.

Friesen Press published my statement of artistic research, The Risk Theatre Model of Tragedy: Gambling, Drama, and the Unexpected in 2019. It contains a model of drama based on uncertainty and chance. On the cover is an image of the dead man’s hand, a visual analogy of the impact of the highly improbable. The dead man’s hand is a poker hand, a pair of black aces on eights. The odds of this poker hand are remote but the consequences great. It was the hand folk hero Wild Bill Hickox held when he was unexpectedly shot dead in a saloon in Deadwood.

My book presents a theory of tragedy through an extended gambling metaphor. Heroes are gamblers who place delirious bets at the no-limit tables. They lay down, however, something other than money. In tragedy, cash isn’t legal tender. Human values are legal tender. Loman, in Death of a Salesman, lays down his dignity for the American Dream. Faust, in Doctor Faustus, lays down his soul for world dominion. Macbeth lays down compassion, or the milk of human kindness, for the crown. More, in A Man for All Seasons, lays down his life for his faith. The ramification, and I believe it is an important one, of looking at dramatic acts as gambling acts is this: tragedy serves as a valuing mechanism for human values. A gallon of milk is worth $4.99, but how much is the milk of human kindness worth? It’s hard to value life from within life itself. But, in Macbeth we see that the milk of human kindness is worth a chance at one crown to rule Scotland. Tragedy is the art that values human assets. It does so through the mechanism of the hero’s wager.

Of course, we don’t come to the theatre to be educated, but to be entertained. Tragedy entertains, according to risk theatre, by dramatizing gambling acts gone awry. Heroes, by making delirious bets, trigger low-probability, high-consequence outcomes not unlike how gamblers, by going all-in, blow themselves up. Famous gamblers who have blown themselves up by wagering all-in include Hermann from Pushkin’s short story The Queen of Spades and the Cincinnati Kid from Jessup’s novel The Cincinnati Kid. Heroes, according to risk theatre are similar. They concentrate their fortunes on one all-in bet. Their wagers, like Hermann’s and the Cincinnati Kid’s, are good. They play to win and should win. But then, the unexpected happens and all is lost. Sometimes the unexpected comes in the form of Birnam Wood coming to Dunsinane Hill. Other times it’s when one discovers—as Loman does—that one’s life insurance policy makes one worth more dead than alive. And then there’re the times when the foolproof bet is derailed—as the Cincinnati Kid discovers—when the adversary “makes the wrong move at the right time.” Audiences are entertained by watching heroes blow up in the same way as spectators in casinos find entertainment in watching the action at the no-limit tables.

Many people talk of how heroes blow up in tragedy, and of how audiences find the fall thrilling. What risk theatre gives you, is the mechanism by which heroes blow up and the mechanism of why audiences find the fall entertaining. “Why do we find tragedy endearing when it recounts sad tales full of strife and sorrow?” is a perennial question. Risk theatre provides answers.

To look at how risk triggers low-probability, high-consequence outcomes, risk theatre brings together studies in risk management and the interpretation and creation of theatre. Studies in risk management take many forms. There are the breakdowns of the events leading up to Chernobyl, Deepwater Horizon, or the space shuttle Challenger. There are studies of irrational exuberance, studies of the financial manias and crashes from the Dutch Tulip Bubble in 1637 to the South Sea Bubble of 1720  (where Newton famously lamented: “I can calculate the movement of the stars but not the madness of men”) and from the Great Depression in 1929 to the Great Recession of 2008. Then there are the studies of the great adventurers, of how they perished ascending Everest or sailing off the edge of the world. And then there are the military disasters: the Fall of Singapore or the failure of the Maginot Line in the Second World War or the Battle of Lake Trasimene or the Battle of Cannae in antiquity.

In these studies, risk analysts, historians, engineers, scientists, and economists have identified recurring motifs which precede the fall: black swans, overconfidence, failure to adapt, dogmatism, communications breakdowns, excessive leverage, lack of redundancy, tight coupling, feedback, miscalculated second-guesses, heuristic errors, and many others. Traditionally, playwrights and interpreters have focused on how the protagonist’s hubris precedes the fall. My research looks at how all the different types of risk precede the fall. My goal is to allow tragedy to speak to today’s analysts, historians, engineers, scientists, economists, and other risk takers, by interpreting tragedy in their language. Birnam Wood, for example, becomes a black swan event. In Corneille’s Cinna, for example, the feedback between the quartet of protagonists leads to unexpected outcomes. Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet becomes a study in tight coupling (when each part of a plan is dependent on all the other parts). And so on.

Tragedy also entertains, and risk theatre explains what makes tragedy thrilling. Spectators come to the theatre to feel the emotions of anticipation and apprehension. To continue the gambling analogy, just as spectators go to the casino to watch the high stakes action at the no-limit tables, so too theatregoers go to the casino, not to watch the nickel and dime bets, but to watch heroes make delirious wagers. Theatregoers feel anticipation for what the hero will wager. What will Macbeth wager for the crown—perhaps compassion, or the milk of human kindness? What will Loman wager for the American Dream—perhaps his dignity? What will Faustus wager for world dominion—perhaps his soul? In addition to anticipation, theatregoers feel apprehension for how, despite having the best-laid plans, heroes lose all.

After twelve years of researching my book, The Risk Theatre Model of Tragedy: Gambling, Drama, and the Unexpected, I shopped around for a publisher. Because I was no longer part of academia, the academic presses were uninterested. Because I wasn’t part of the theatre world, the presses which focus on drama were uninterested. The manuscript sat fallow until a friend suggested that I try self-publishing.

As luck would have it, one of Canada’s premier self-publishing companies, Friesen Press, is located in Victoria. In 2018, I signed up with Friesen. They would take care of typesetting, printing, and distributing the book. Marketing and publicity would be by me. Then I thought: “How can I get credibility for my self-published title to entice theatregoers, critics, academics, and playwrights to buy it?” My goal is to offer people a new and exciting way to interpret and understand drama and literature. But who would buy a self-published book?

First, I started a blog. Since I was working on tragedy, and Melpomene is tragedy’s Muse, I called the blog “Doing Melpomene’s Work” (melpomeneswork.com). I would blog about the process of writing the book, my thoughts on theatre, book reviews, and really anything that came to mind. But the blog wouldn’t be enough.

In addition to the blog, I decided to start a playwright competition: I would challenge playwrights all over the world to create risk theatre plays, and there would be cash rewards for the winners. The playwright competition would provide design concept proof. If audiences loved risk theatre plays, then tragedy could be rebranded as a theatre of risk. Tragedy is a tired art. Some find it pretentious. Others are mystified by the concepts of “flaw” and “hamartia” and “catharsis.” Tragedy needed a reboot.

Creating the playwright competition was more challenging than I thought. I had no theatre contacts and no idea where to start. I initially pitched the idea to Playwrights Guild of Canada. They said: “We like the idea, but who are you?” They would publicize the competition on the condition that I partner up with a theatre. At that point, I began to approach the local theatres.

I thought it’d be easy. I always heard the arts were looking for money and funding. I would approach the local theatres saying: “I’ve got all this money to start a competition, let’s partner up.” Not all the theatres responded to emails and voice messages. Some who responded didn’t think the competition was a good fit. Some responded with hostile comments. This wasn’t the welcome into the theatre world that I was expecting.

Sometimes, after some bad luck, you get some good luck to balance things out, and that’s exactly what happened. When I called Langham Court Theatre, General Manager Michelle Buck just happened to be in the box office, and I had a chance to speak with her. We set up a meeting. In a few months, the board of directors approved the project. She brought teacher, director, and playwright Keith Digby on board, who in turn brought on board actor, director, playwright, and educator Michael Armstrong. The Risk Theatre Modern Tragedy Playwright Competition was born. It awards over $11,000 in cash prizes to playwrights each year. In addition, we bring in the winning playwright to workshop the play. The experience culminates with a staged reading at Langham Court Theatre.

Our international jurors for the first year were Yvette Nolan (Canada), Armen Pandola (USA), and Sally Stott (UK). Here are the winners they selected, based on the criteria of risk theatre as outlined in my book.

The first place winner was Brooklyn playwright Gabriel Jason Dean’s In Bloom. It tells the story of Aaron, an ambitious, well-intentioned, but ultimately reckless documentary filmmaker in Afghanistan. While there, he not only risks his own life in pursuit of exposing a greater truth, but his actions also lead to the death of an Afghan boy named Hafiz, a tragedy Aaron later lies about in his award-winning memoir. This sets off an unexpected chain reaction of events.

The four runners-up were Michael Bucklin with Signature Photo, a story of a photojournalist who is willing to risk all to get the photograph that will launch her career. She makes the dangerous trek to Rwanda, where she finally gets the shot—a picture so brutal and controversial that it became an instant sensation. Yet the success of the picture has unintended consequences for the photojournalist, as well as those around her, and the repercussions turn devastating when the authenticity of the photographs is called into question.

Next was Scott McCrea with Mysterious Ecstasy of the Lonely Business Traveler, a play in which a wealthy corporate executive’s memories have been erased and replaced by a copy of those of another man, a doctor named Marko. Believing he’s Marko, he wagers more than he suspects he can to start a new life, free from the errors of his past. But his gamble has unexpected tragic consequences.

Then there was Phillip Christian Smith’s The Chechens. In The Chechens, rumours are going around that homosexuals are being held in camps. Can one family go all-in to protect their little brother who may or may not be gay? Or will they turn him in or honour kill him? Whichever way the family chooses, dangerous and irrevocable consequences will be set loose.

The final runner-up was J.D. Volk’s Chrysalis. In Chrysalis, an interracial married couple struggles to come to terms with the role they played in the tragic death of their young biracial son at the hands of a police officer. It examines Keri’s wager to transcend the cultural norms of being a woman of colour in America. She does this by guarding against the unlikely but ever-present threat of violence that may befall Jack, her biracial child, and trying to convince her white husband of the need to take appropriate precautions. Nevertheless, the die of fate has been cast. The unexpected triumphs over expectations.

The implications of taking risk theatre from the page to the stage are far-reaching. By encouraging and challenging playwrights each year to make risk the dramatic fulcrum of the action, we can test the hypotheses of risk theatre. Can each dramatic act be considered a gambling act? Is theatre the place where we can price out the value of human assets such as dignity, honour, and compassion—the milk of human kindness—through the mechanism of the hero’s wager? How do audiences react to heroes triggering low-probability, high-consequence outcomes with their delirious wagers?

I was exceedingly pleased by both the quantity (182 playwrights from 11 countries participated) and quality of the work. From creative writers to academics and from emerging playwrights to seasoned veterans, they sent in plays. In our first year, we had been expecting fifty entries, tops seventy. That our expectations had been exceeded was proof of concept: playwrights were interested in writing plays where risk and the unexpected drive the action.

In October 2019, Gabriel Jason Dean flew from Brooklyn to Victoria to workshop his play In Bloom. Michael Armstrong ran the workshop with Gabriel, and the workshop culminated in a staged reading at Langham Court Theatre. It was magic to focus on risk, chance, and the unexpected during the workshop. And it worked on stage. The best comment I had was from a friend who came. She said, “I’m glad I could make it, but I have to leave at the intermission to put the kids to bed.” At the end of the show, when I saw she stayed, she smiled and said: “I had to see how it turned out.” The success of the staged reading with the audience provided further proof of concept that risk is the key to rebooting tragedy in the 21st century.

The feedback from the playwriting community has been encouraging. They enjoy this new way to look at tragedy. Playwright and two-time Academy Award nominee Donald Connolly wrote: “The idea of ‘tragedy’ was wrapped in the mystique of motivations and nobility and flaws that put it out of reach for me as a playwright. This book strips away the mystique and makes the form available to me.” The competition is now in its second year. The goal is that in ten years, risk theatre will have reached a critical mass with playwrights (who create the plays), directors and dramaturgs (who interpret plays), and audiences (who attend plays). Once critical mass is reached, tragedy can be rebranded from its old identity (pity, fear, error, story of kings and queens) into a theatre of risk which speaks to contemporary audiences.

In addition to the blog and the playwright competition, I also conference and speak to students. Although risk theatre is a new idea, its ideas can be presented through reading classic plays. Macbeth is a great example. In Shakespeare’s play, Macbeth’s high-risk wager—the milk of human kindness for the crown—is thwarted by an unexpected low-probability, high-consequence event—Birnam Wood coming to Dunsinane Hill.

This year, I’ve presented to a third year drama class at the University of Victoria. I gave them a risk theatre reading of Sophocles’ classic play Oedipus rex. A risk theatre reading starts with finding the hero’s wager: Oedipus bets that he can solve the riddle of the plague and stakes his reputation on being able to do so (he did after all, solve the sphinx’ riddle). His bet is good, but his expectations are dashed when a low-probability, high-consequence event happens. That event is that he unexpectedly runs into the Corinthian messenger—who had also saved him when he was a babe—and the shepherd—who was supposed to have exposed him when he was a babe and is the sole surviving witness of Laius’ murder. Risk theatre finds that dramatists generate excitement by derailing heroes’ expectations by low-probability, high-consequence risk events. A link to the presentation: “When Genius Failed: A Risk Theatre Reading of Sophocles’ Oedipus rex” can be found here: https://melpomeneswork.com/oedipus/

I’ve also presented this year at the Classical Association of the Middle West and South AGM at Sanford University in Birmingham, Alabama. In this presentation, I talk about my favourite tragedy: Aeschylus’ Seven Against Thebes. It’s my favourite because it’s the only play in the dramatic canon—whether ancient or modern—where you can quantify the exact odds of what did take place, and what did not take place. It’s possible to do this because of the play’s unique structure. It’s set during a civil war. Seven attacking captains are randomly posted to attack each of Thebes’ seven gates. Seven defending captains are also randomly posted to defend each of Thebes’ seven gates. The worst-case scenario takes place if the two brothers are both posted to the final gate. By using the laws of probability, I demonstrate how Aeschylus structures the play so that the fated outcome takes place despite the odds of it happening being more than two and a half million to one against. Seven Against Thebes is risk theatre’s paradigm play because the sheer improbability of the outcome can be stated in such precise and overwhelming figures as to be able to prove the risk theatre hypothesis that the function of tragedy is to dramatize low-probability, high-consequence risk events. A link to the presentation: “Aeschylus’ Seven Against Thebes, Probability, and a New Theory of Tragedy” can be found here: https://melpomeneswork.com/aeschylus-seven-against-thebes-probability-and-a-new-theory-of-tragedy/

In conclusion, the aim of my artistic research is to consider all the ways in which tragedy is a theatre of risk. Through my book, the playwright competition, the blog, and conferencing, I invite academics, theatre professionals, creative writers, critics, and audiences to consider how risk is the dramatic fulcrum of the action. My efforts are directed to a singular goal: to usher in a new tragic age in storytelling, drama, and literature. Our age is an age fascinated with risk, chance, uncertainty, and the impact of the highly improbable. Risk theatre rebrands and reimagines tragedy for these modern times. Even though I approach theatre as a stranger and outsider, I hope, that people will want to explore the possibilities when risk is the dramatic fulcrum of the action. Risk theatre is the name of 21st century.

Until next time, I’m Edwin Wong, and I’m doing Melpomene’s work.

Aeschylus’ Seven Against Thebes, Probability, and a New Theory of Tragedy

CAMWS Classical Association of Middle West and South Presentation

116th Annual Meeting in Birmingham, Alabama

March 25-28, 2020

Samford University

Seventh Paper Session, Section A: Greek Drama 4

Aeschylus’ Seven Against Thebes, Probability, and a New Theory of Tragedy

I’d like to tell you about my new theory of tragedy called “risk theatre.” In risk theatre, risk is the dramatic fulcrum of the action. To illustrate it, I’ll use a play full of gambling references and high-risk action: Aeschylus’ Seven Against Thebes.

Drama, I argue, dramatizes risk. Comedy dramatizes upside risk. Tragedy dramatizes downside risk. Tragic heroes are gamblers who gamble with something other than money. They make delirious bets that trigger devastating low-probability, high-consequence outcomes. Audiences ask: “How did such a good bet go awry?”

To begin a risk theatre read, look for a bet where much is at stake. High stakes entertain. When you go to the casino, you don’t go to watch nickel and dime bets. You go to watch the heroes at the no-limit tables who lay down dignity, honour, or compassion, the milk of human kindness. You go to experience the emotions of anticipation and apprehension: anticipation for the magnitude of their wagers and apprehension for how they blow up. Even though heroes are smart, swift, and well-accoutered, they lose all. To see how they had every expectation of being crowned the ivy, yet lose all evokes wonder.

What’s the bet in Seven? As civil war rages, Eteocles bets the gods are on his side. It’s a high-risk bet, as Thebes’ existence hangs on the line. It’s a good bet, as he’s defending native shrines from foreign aggressors. Why wouldn’t the gods be on his side?

How will Eteocles know the gods are on his side? In this play, seven attacking captains are posted by lot—in other words randomly—to Thebes’ seven gates. Eteocles, in turn, draws seven lots to post seven defenders. By drawing lots, he entrusts the outcome to the gods. If the gods smile, the matchups will be favourable. If the gods turn away, the matchups will be unfavourable. Through the crack that is probability and chance, the gods reveal their intent.

I follow Fritz-Gregor Hermann’s conjecture that a stage direction instructing Eteocles to draw lots on stage was lost in transmission. Hermann’s conjecture solves the problem of the tenses, as Eteocles shifts between the future, perfect, present, and aorist when announcing the defenders. Before, commentators were divided: some thought he decided the postings prior to the shield scene. Others thought he decides during the shield scene. And yet others thought he decided some before and some during.

If Eteocles draws lots on stage he can easily shift between tenses because he can be speaking before he draws the lot (“I will announce the winner”), as he’s drawing the lot (“I see the winner is”), or after he’s seen the lot (“A winner has been chosen”). Not only does the conjecture rehabilitate the shield scene, rebuked for being static, but it also heightens the suspense. Drawing lots is dramatic in itself, a device Aeschylus would revisit in the Oresteia.

Do the random matchups favour Eteocles? In aggregate, yes. Take the first gate, where the attacker shouts out impieties. Eteocles just happens to draw a defender who is “a noble man who honours the throne of Reverence (503).” Or, take the fourth gate where the attacker bears an image of Typhon on his shield. By a strange synchronicity, Eteocles draws a defender who has Zeus—Typhon’s slayer—emblazoned on his shield. Eteocles, pleased at this stroke, invokes Hermes, the god of luck, saying: “Hermes, by divine reason has matched this pair (625).” Through the crack in randomness, the gods reveal their will.

Additional subjective cues hearten Eteocles. There’s the enemy’s disarray. Their morale is so low that they prepare their obituaries. One of their captains says: “I’m going to die.” Dark omens hang over them. They harangue one another. Contrast this with the chorus of Theban women, who function as a barometer of morale within the city. They start by singing the fall of Thebes. But, by the first stasimon, they sing the ode to joy. From the matchups to the unfolding action, Eteocles has subjective reasons to believe.

Eteocles also has objective reasons to believe. With seven attackers, seven defenders, and seven gates, the worst-case scenario is buried deep in the odds. The worst-case scenario happens if he confronts his brother at the seventh gate. At the final gate, substitutions would no longer be possible, as all the captains are posted. Kindred blood would spill. It’s the worst-case scenario because there’re rituals to purify spilt blood, but no rituals to purify spilt kindred blood.

We can use this play to prove the theory of risk theatre because, with seven attackers, seven defenders, and seven gates, all the possible permutations of the attackers and defenders fall under the rules of probability. When Birnam Wood came to Dunsinane Hill, we felt it was a low-probability, high-consequence event, but failed to quantify it. When the detective on the trail of regicide finds out that he himself was the regicide, we felt it was a low-probability, high-consequence event, but failed to quantify it. Because of Seven’s unique construction, it’s the one play in the entire canon where we may calculate the odds of what did, and did not happen. With these odds, we may prove the risk theatre hypothesis. Let’s do math.

Mathematically, the likelihood of a compound event is the product of its individual probabilities. The odds of rolling snake-eyes, or two ones on six-sided dice, is 1:36, or 1:6 * 1:6. On that analogy, the odds of the worst-case scenario are 1:49, the product of Polyneices’ odds (1:7) and Eteocles’ odds (1:7) of going to the final gate. The probability of the worst-case scenario happening is exceedingly low, about 2%. Most of the time—in fact, 48 out of 49 times—the worst case scenario is averted. Of course, Aeschylus doesn’t dramatize what happens most of the time, but the lowest-probability, highest-consequence event. And that is exactly what risk theatre theory predicts.

If 1:49 odds aren’t enough to entice you, if you say, “I need, at minimum, 1:1000 odds to be convinced that risk is the dramatic fulcrum of the action,” then I offer you this. The odds of the brothers meeting at the seventh gate are 1:49, to be sure, but that figure hardly reflects the chance of all the matchups taking place exactly as they did. The play, argues Gilbert Murray and others, is structured so that the matchups from gates one to six bolster Eteocles’ confidence with the result that, when he falls, he falls from a greater height. The play would be less if the captain with the Typhon device encounters anyone but the captain bearing Typhon’s slayer. The question we need to ask, then, is: what are the odds of all the matchups taking place exactly as they did? This fascinating question has not been asked until today.

According to the law of permutations, the formula to find how many unique arrangements there are with seven captains at seven gates is seven factorial (7!) or 7 * 6 * 5 * 4 * 3 * 2 * 1, which equal 5040. Since there are seven attacking and seven defending captains, to find out how many unique pairings exist at seven gates, multiply 5040 by 5040. With seven gates, seven attackers, and seven defenders 25,401,600 permutations are possible. The odds, therefore, of Eteocles being raised up from gates one to six only to be struck down at gate seven are 25,401,599:1 against. Aeschylus has transformed the fated outcome, known to all, into an exceedingly improbable event. This is exactly what the theory of risk theatre predicts.

If Birnam Wood coming to Dunsinane Hill couldn’t convince you, if the uncanny reunion of Oedipus with the Corinthian messenger and the shepherd couldn’t convince you, then I hope today’s reading convinces you that the function of tragedy is to dramatize low-probability, high-consequence risk events. I give you over twenty five million reasons to believe.

This concludes my reading. Tragedy starts with a bet. An all-in bet with much at stake. It’s a good bet with a high likelihood of success. But the hero’s expectations are dashed when, against all odds, the unexpected happens. Tragedy functions by suppressing the subjective odds of the fated event happening so that, when it happens, the audience is dumbstruck. Fate suppressed rages and explodes.

To take risk theatre from page to stage, I founded the world’s largest competition for the writing of tragedy with Langham Court Theatre, one of Canada’s oldest and most respected theatres. Every year, winners receive over $11,000 in cash and a trip to Victoria which culminates in a workshop and staged reading. Congratulations to Brooklyn playwright Gabriel Jason Dean for winning the inaugural competition with his play In Bloom, a story of a well-meaning journalist who crosses the line. The website is at risktheatre.com.

Risk theatre is inaugurating a new tragic age in drama and literature that will rival fifth century Athens and the English Renaissance. Aeschylus’ Seven leads the charge as risk theatre’s paradigm play. “Risk” dominates today’s headlines and, to understand risk, we return to the ancients who began by dramatizing the consequences of what happens when more things happen than what we think will happen.

Risk theatre is literary theory’s finest hour in the 21st century because it recalls something that has been forgotten so long, namely, that risk is the dramatic pivot of the action. I challenge you to use it on all your favourite works, whether they’re novels, history, biography, opera, or films, and I promise you you’ll never read a work of literature the same way. Please tell everyone about this bold new tool of interpretation and ask your local library to carry my book: The Risk Theatre Model of Tragedy: Gambling, Drama, and the Unexpected. Review copies are available at Classical JournalAmerican Drama and Theatre (JADT), and The Bryn Mawr Classical Review. If you’re a road warrior commuter, the audiobook, performed by Greg Patmore of Coronation Street, will be released any day.

Thank you, and welcome to the new tragic age.

Until next time, I’m Edwin Wong, and I’m doing Melpomene’s work.

When Genius Failed: A Risk Theatre Reading of Sophocles’ OEDIPUS REX

Clearihue Building A206

February 3, 2020

University of Victoria

melpomeneswork.com/oedipus

When Genius Failed: A Risk Theatre Reading of Sophocles’ Oedipus rex

A Presentation to Laurel Bowman’s GRS 320 Greek Tragedy Class

Most tragedies are one and done. Have you heard of Antiphon’s Andromache? I didn’t think so. Some plays, such as Norton and Sackville’s Gorboduc from 1561, have been produced many times. But they don’t enter the canon. Other plays enter the canon, but languish on the fringes as historical curiosities. Friedrich Schiller’s 1782 play, The Robbers, is remembered today as an example of the “Storm and Stress” art movement. Then there’re the colossuses: Sophocles’ Oedipus rex, Shakespeare’s Macbeth, Miller’s Death of a Salesman. They draw evergreen audiences. Court Theatre in Chicago just staged Oedipus to rave reviews. It featured a powerhouse translation by classicist Nicholas Rudall, a dazzling, all-white scenic design, and a chorus that walked amongst the audience. Of the colossuses, the oldest is Oedipus, and being oldest, the most robust. It will outlast Salesman and perhaps Macbeth. Here’s the question: how did Sophocles create a play to remember?

Has anyone been to a magic show, seen Criss Angel or David Copperfield perform? At these shows, there’re those who come for the entertainment and those who come to see how the magic works, seeking the soul of magic. If you’ve ever wanted to grasp soul of drama, listen carefully. We’re going to reveal the secrets of Sophocles’ magic. We start by exploring how he’s unified the action into a whole.

If we look at the play from the characters’ perspective, we would have to conclude there’s no rhyme or reason behind the action. The chorus doesn’t get what’s going on. At one point, they ask: “Why should I dance? (984)” Since the play is part of the ancient liturgy and the chorus dances to honour god, if they ask why they’re dancing, they’re really saying: “This is so confusing, I don’t get it.” Characters don’t do any better. Jocasta, watching the events unfold, concludes that the action proceeds at random. “It’s all chance,” she says, “chance rules our lives.” She’s wrong and pays the price.

We don’t want to be like Jocasta, so we look for telltale signs of Sophocles’ dramatic technique. In the Odyssey, Homer records an older variant of the Oedipus myth. When Odysseus recounts his visions of the underworld, he says:

I saw the beautiful Epikaste [Jocasta], Oidipodes’ [Oedipus’] mother

who in the ignorance of her mind had done a monstrous

thing when she married her own son. He killed his father

and married her, but the gods soon made it all known to mortals. (11.721-274)

Compare this to Sullivan’s recent review of Court Theatre’s Oedipus in the Chicago Sun-Times. She says:

Even after he’d murdered his father and slept with his mother, King Oedipus still could have changed his missile-like trajectory toward damnation. All he needed to do was stop asking questions. End his relentless pursuit of self-knowledge. (November 18, 2019)

This is different than Homer’s account where the gods tell all. Perhaps Sophocles’ magic is that he dramatizes Oedipus sinking the ship by asking too many questions?

Let’s see if the text bears this out. The play’s action progresses interview by interview. Oedipus is a detective, interviewing witnesses to break through in the cold case of the forgotten regicide. One of the interviewees is the prophet Tiresias. Since he’s a prophet, he knows. But he doesn’t want to rain on Oedipus’ parade. He says:

Just send me home. You bear your burdens,

I’ll bear mine. It’s better that way,

please believe me. (364-366)

Oedipus would do well to heed his warning. But he presses on. Then he interviews Jocasta, who’s figured it out. She doesn’t have the heart to tell him. She implores him to stand down, saying:

Stop—in the name of god,

if you love your own life, call off this search!

My suffering is enough. (1162-1164)

Oedipus would do well to heed her warning. But he presses on, saying, “Listen to you? No more. I must know it all (1169).” In the final interview, the shepherd implores him to stop, saying: “No—god’s sake, master, no more questions! (1280)” Oedipus would do well to heed his warning. But he presses on. All is lost as the truth comes out.

The text confirms Sullivan’s observation that Oedipus asks too many questions. But it’s hard to say: “Sophocles has created an immortal masterpiece by using the device of interrogation.” Is the interrogation part of a larger, overarching dramatic technique?

Let’s compare this sequence with one from another play. Long ago, in all the schools, they taught this play. Maybe they still do today. The play is Julius Caesar. In this play, everyone warns Caesar to stay at home. Take a sick day. The soothsayer says: “Beware the Ides of March.” The haruspex inspects the sacrificial animal: oh no, the heart is missing! His wife has nightmares of Caesar’s statue bleeding. Spirits walk the streets. The sky rains blood. Graves yield their dead. But Caesar really wants to go to the Capitol. The first time he’s told to stay at home he says:

I rather tell thee what is to be fear’d

Than what I fear; for always I am Caesar.

The second time they say, “Caesar, stay at home!” he says:

Caesar shall forth, the things that

threaten’d me

Ne’er look’d but on my back; when they shall see

The face of Caesar, they are vanished.

The third time they say, “Caesar, stay at home!” he says:

Cowards die many times before

their deaths;

The valiant never taste of death but once.

The final time they say “Caesar, stay at home!” he says:

I am as constant as the northern star,

Of whose true-fix’d and resting quality

There is no fellow in the firmament.

Do you see a similarity between Oedipus and Caesar? They both raise the stakes by ignoring the warnings. As the warnings pile up, Sophocles and Shakespeare telegraph to the audience: “Stay tuned, something explosive’s about to happen!” The dramatic technique of both masters is to make risk the dramatic fulcrum of the action. By risk they blow up their heroes.

Tragedians make risk the dramatic pivot of the action because risk entertains. Consider games of chance: in casinos, why do spectators crowd around the no-limit tables? They do so because such games elicit two powerful emotions: anticipation and apprehension. Anticipation for what the gambler will wager and apprehension for how the gambler will blow up. Spectators of tragedy are the same. They feel anticipation for what the hero will wager and apprehension for how the hero will blow up.

Think of tragic heroes as gamblers who wager something other than money. In tragedy, cash isn’t legal tender. Human values are legal tender. Loman, in Death of a Salesman wagers his dignity for the American Dream. Faust, in Doctor Faustus, wagers his soul for world domination. Macbeth wagers compassion, or the milk of human kindness, for the crown. What human asset does Oedipus lay down? When he struts onto the stage and his opening line is: “You all know me, the world knows my fame: I am Oedipus (8-9),” you know he values his reputation more than all the money in the world. Accordingly, he stakes his reputation, betting all-in that he can solve the riddle of the regicide. Each time Tiresias, Jocasta, and the shepherd tell him to fold, he doubles down: his reputation is at stake. And so, as he drives up the stakes, the audience feels apprehension that he’s going to blow.

How does he blow up? Let’s look at his background. Before he was born, the oracle tells Laius, the king of Thebes, not to have children: his son will be a patricide. Laius, however, having had a child, binds the baby’s feet together and orders the shepherd to expose it. The shepherd, however, relents and hands it over to a herdsman. The herdsman brings it from Thebes to Corinth where the childless king and queen adopt it. When Oedipus comes of age, he hears rumours he’s adopted. He asks the oracle, but the oracle, instead of answering, tells him he’ll kill his father and marry his mother. Fearing the oracle, he departs Corinth still believing he’s from Corinth. On his travels, he gets into a road rage incident and kills Laius, his real father. Then he dispatches the sphinx and receives in reward the hand of Jocasta, the dowager queen. Oedipus has two identities. He’s at the same time a son of Corinth where Polybus and Merope are his parents and a son of Thebes where Laius and Jocasta are his parents. He blows up when he reconnects with his Theban identity, learning that fate walks faster than a man can run.

Sophocles has a problem: if Oedipus is so clever, why hasn’t he figured it out? He knows the oracle. He knows he’s killed a man his father’s age and married a woman his mother’s age. Sophocles moves to insulate Oedipus from his Theban heritage. He misinforms Oedipus: a false report goes out that many brigands murdered Laius. Oedipus was travelling alone. So it couldn’t have been him. Not only that, to confirm his identity with moral certainty, Sophocles arranges it so that Oedipus has to meet two people he hasn’t seen in years and at the same time. The first of the two is the Corinthian messenger. The messenger is the only one who can confirm Oedipus is adopted because he’s also the herdsman who brought Oedipus to Corinth. But he lives far away and, because the king and queen of Corinth treat Oedipus as their own, has no reason to tell Oedipus. The second of the two is the shepherd. The shepherd is the only one who can confirm Oedipus killed Laius because he’s the sole surviving eyewitness of the murder. He’s in no rush to tell because he values his life. The shepherd is also the only one who can confirm the child of Laius and Jocasta survived because he was also the servant charged with exposing the babe. His memory’s going though, and he needs the messenger to jog his recollection. By solving one problem, Sophocles introduces another: how does he reconnect these three figures—Oedipus, the messenger, and the shepherd—separated by time and distance?

He reconnects them through the magic of risk. Risk connects because it supersizes you. Risk makes you bigger, larger than life. You touch more things, and more things touch you. Here’s an example from the world of finance. Let’s say you have a basket of diverse investments. You have stocks in Thailand where a young demographic powers the economy. You have Russian bonds. This is like money in the bank, as sovereign states have this thing called the printing press, so they never default. You have acres of undeveloped beachfront in Mexico. It’s going to jump in value when the rezoning permit comes through. Your investments are nominally unconnected in type and geography.

Then the unexpected happens. Out of nowhere the Thai government floats the baht, taking it off the US dollar peg. The baht falls 50% and Thai stocks 75% for a combined loss of nearly 90%. Then, the rezoning permit on your Mexican acreage doesn’t come through. You were waiting on an environmental assessment and the only person who could sign got eaten by a lion while on safari. If that wasn’t enough, Russia suddenly defaults on its debt. Despite the adversity, you hang on. After five years, Russia starts paying back its debt, Thai stocks bounce back, and the rezoning permit comes in. You’re golden.

Let’s replay this simulation and add risk. You leverage your 1 million dollars of assets to borrow 28 million. You reinvest the borrowed money. Now, with 1 million of your own money, you control 29 million dollars’ worth of Thai stocks, Mexican land, and Russian bonds. You’re leveraged up 28:1. You’re supersized. Now, when the Thai government floats the baht and your Thai stocks get hammered, your lenders come knocking. They want their money back ASAP. You sell your stocks at a 90% loss. But that’s not enough. There’s the Mexican land holdings. But remember, the rezoning permit hasn’t come through. As it is, you only get 50 cents on the dollar. You need to sell your bonds, another nominally unconnected asset. But Russia has just defaulted. Good luck finding a buyer. Now you’re selling your personal assets: your principal residence and your kids’ college fund. But word’s gotten out you’re having a fire sale. Congratulations, superstar, you’ve just blown up. Risk has connected many nominally unconnected events.

What do events in Thailand, Mexico, Russia, and a lion eating a permit officer have in common? They have as much in common as the murder of a king, the plague, an unexpected visitor from Corinth, and a man running away from home. Things happen, as Jocasta says, by chance. They’re unrelated. But when you take on risk, you connect them. From the junk mail filter blocking a critical message to the flapping of a butterfly’s wings, when you wager all-in, everything’s significant because you’re larger than life. Consider this: if you take no risk, you become small fries, lose touch, become disconnected from the world. But if you take on infinite risk, you will have become the world, you will have become connected to it all, because now everything matters. Risk makes you a clay god, omnipresent, but not omnipotent.

Apart from some details, the story of how risk connected unconnected events actually happened. In 1994 two economics Nobel Prize winners founded a hedge fund called Long-Term Capital Management or LTCM. Since they were so smart, they leveraged up 28:1. How could genius fail? With 5 billion of real assets, they controlled 140 billion in borrowed assets. Though their trading strategy consisted of buying and selling mispriced assets where the profit was perhaps 1% of the trade, when you’re leveraged up 28:1, that’s still a lot of money. 1% profit on 140 billion dollars is 1.4 billion. A 1.4 billion return on your original principle of 5 billion is almost 30%. Where can you make 30% year after year?

Warnings came in that they were taking too much risk. They were called out for “picking up nickels in front of a bulldozer.” But, like Caesar and Oedipus, they ignored the warnings. Did their detractors have Nobel Prizes? As cracks appeared in Thailand and Russia, their lenders started calling their loans. But they couldn’t pay. The fire sale had started. Then it cascaded: their lenders couldn’t pay their depositors. It was financial Armageddon. The global economic system was going down. Market participants prayed for divine intervention. Then, just like in the play, the deus ex machina appeared, played by Alan Greenspan, chair of the Federal Reserve. Out of the heavens, he showered money. Everyone was saved, only to be taken down in the Great Recession ten years later, when leverage blew up the housing market. If you’re looking for a riveting book on how black hole risk is the great connector, read journalist Lowenstein’s classic: When Genius Failed: The Rise and Fall of Long-Term Capital Management.

How does Sophocles get Oedipus to risk all? It’s not natural. We’re normally risk averse. Why go for a home run when you can get by with a hit? In the game of football, why throw a Hail Mary when you can get a first down? But when you’re down and the clock winds down, it’s safer to throw the interception-prone Hail Mary because if you don’t you’ll definitely lose. How does Sophocles wind down the clock? Notice anything else different between Homer and Sophocles’ take on the Oedipus myth?—no plague in Homer. Sophocles puts in a plague to get Oedipus to throw risk to the wind. They’re all dying. Now Oedipus has no choice but to throw a Hail Mary. It’s no coincidence that tragedians set their plays during insurrection, civil war, collapsing dynasties, and heaven raining fire. Outlier events encourage risk taking. When the world burns, risk’s enticements more than compensate for its blandishments.

Let’s go back to Oedipus. Oedipus raises the stakes not by leveraging greenback dollars, but, as we’ve discussed, by asking questions. Like the founders of LTCM, he can up the ante because he’s the smartest person in the room: he has a Nobel prize in defeating sphinxes. When Oedipus questions Tiresias, Tiresias tells him to stand down. But he refuses to stand down and dares to question Tiresias’ prophetic authority. By raising the stakes, he gets Tiresias to reveal how two unrelated events—the riddle of the plague and the riddle of Oedipus’ identity—share a common denominator. Risk connects.

Next, Oedipus raises the stakes by questioning Jocasta. Jocasta reveals that she knew the oracle that their son would be a patricide. Oedipus reveals that he knew the oracle that he would be a patricide. Oedipus also reveals he killed a man who would have been his father’s age the same time Laius was slain. Because he’s raising the risk, he connects himself with seemingly unrelated events: the riddle of the plague and the murder of Laius. Risk connects.

Then, despite plaintive, sorrow-bearing objections from Jocasta, when the Corinthian messenger comes, he continues the torrent of questions. Most of the time, the arrival of a random messenger would have no bearing on the ruler’s identity. The messenger would have come, told Oedipus he’s inherited the Corinthian throne, and left. But, by raising the stakes, he connects the messenger with his destiny. When questioned, the messenger reveals that many years ago, he had saved Oedipus, bringing him from Thebes to Corinth. Risk connects.

Finally the shepherd comes. They clamour for Oedipus to stop. The fate of Laius and Jocasta’s babe should have nothing to do with Oedipus, but, by raising the stakes, he connects his fate with the shepherd. If Oedipus hadn’t of raised the stakes, the shepherd wouldn’t have said: “Would that on that day I let you die on Mount Cithaeron as food for the dogs and the carrion birds.” Risk connects.

Just as LTCM bound by risk unrelated events in Thailand, Russia, and markets all over the world, so too, Oedipus bound by risk the oracles, the riddle of the plague, the murder of the king, and the actions of the shepherd and the messenger. If you still have any doubts about how risk is the great connector, consider whether a day delay in the mail can lead to two suicides instead of a wedding. It shouldn’t. But what happens when you bind by risk the rays of all the world’s vertices? Ask Romeo and Juliet. They will tell you.

Oedipus has withstood the test of time because, of the tragedies amongst, it best fulfils drama’s mandate to simulate risk. Sophocles’ dramatic technique is to seek and destroy Oedipus through risk. Sophocles single-mindedly devises the setting, characterization, and action for one purpose: to raise the stakes. A plague is a risk-on setting. Oedipus’ character is built to go big or go home: “I’m Oedipus, my wit is of the legends. You have a riddle? I’ll solve it, heaven be damned!” The action incites risk. The characters say: “For god’s sake, stop!” Oedipus replies: “No, no, thrice no!” Risk fills us with wonder and awe, because it reveals a gap in our nature: when we’re most confident, we’re in the gravest danger.

To illustrate how risk is the dramatic fulcrum of the action, we’ve used my new theory of drama called “risk theatre.” Theory is critical, as without the eye of theory, the meaning of drama lies in the dark. The chorus sees what’s happening but can’t make sense of it. “Why should I dance?” it asks. Jocasta looks around and concludes: “It looks like it’s happening through chance. There’s no meaning.” With theory, we achieve a higher understanding. Theory imbues drama with human significance.

Unlike my competitors’ theories, which are so complex no one can come to an agreement on the meanings of their key terms, my method is as easy as A, B, and C.  First, find the human quality that the hero lays down as a stake. Is it dignity, reputation, the soul, or life? Second, find the desired outcome of the bet. Is it a kingdom, the act of revenge (common in revenge tragedies), or a cure for cancer? Third, find how the playwright drives up the stakes to trigger an unexpected low-probability, high-consequence outcome. I challenge you to use the theory of risk theatre on all your favourite works, whether it’s drama, novel, history, opera, or biography, and I guarantee you that you’ll never look at literature the same way again.

You hold in your hand my book: The Risk Theatre Model of Tragedy, the result of thirteen years of research. The book has launched the world’s largest competition for the writing of tragedy, hosted by Langham Court Theatre. Faculty and students at UVic have entered—and placed—as well as over 200 playwrights from 11 countries including former Soviet republics. We’re inaugurating a new tragic age, one that will rival fifth century Athens and the English Renaissance. Spread the word on this twenty first century grassroots art movement, based in Victoria. The contest website is at risktheatre.com. Follow me at facebook.com/edwincharleswong. A transcript of this talk is available on my blog at melpomeneswork.com/oedipus. 

Why should you listen to this risk theatre theory? Do you know why Darwin’s remembered today? If you thought “evolution,” that’s wrong. Many people at that time were talking about evolution. Darwin’s remembered because he came up with the mechanism of natural selection which explained how evolution works. So too, many people have talked about heroes blowing up. What I’ve given you, however, is the mechanism called risk that explains how they blow up. Heroes, by taking on delirious risks draw together people, places, and things into the singularity of dramatic action.

In risk theatre, it’s not error or a tragic flaw. It’s risk. As a risk taker, Oedipus played out his hand brilliantly and played to win. There was a plague. He had to save the city. Not only that, he was putting to practice the mandate to “know thyself.” These very words “know thyself” were inscribed over the doorway of Apollo’s temple in Delphi where the oracle spoke to Oedipus. But Oedipus, in seeking to know himself, loses all. What then, is the moral of the tale?

The moral is that the we, insubstantial creatures of a day, can be great when we dare to be great. Though lacking means, when we throw risk to the wind, we approach heaven on equal terms. Though we are killed by death, when we wager all-in, we become the measure of all things. Though risk strikes us down and blows us up, not even the gods can sing the tales of glory that Oedipus sang, that Faustus sang, that the Duchess of Malfi sang, that John Proctor sang, that Caesar sang, that Joan of Arc sang, that all the mortal stars sang. Tragedy has given us the Oedipuses, the Faustuses, and the other colossuses of human nature so that when we are struck down, we say in a still small voice: “It is not to me alone that this fate has come, I go to join the parade of heroes who have overcome the smallness of their existence by the greatness of their daring.” In the coming tragic age, the highest type of individual will be the one who is in love with risk, who would willingly blow up a thousand times for the thrill of it all, the individual who says with Faustus: “Had I as many souls as there be stars, I’d give them all for Mephistopheles.” In this coming age, dare to be great in all that you do. You will be the greatest generation the world has seen.

Don’t read drama like the chorus, who doesn’t get it. Don’t read drama like Jocasta, who sees only random chance. All of drama is a dramatization of risk. That’s why there’s two dramatic forms. Tragedy to dramatize downside risk. And comedy to dramatize upside risk.

Thank you.

Until next time, I’m Edwin Wong, and I’m doing Melpomene’s work.

A Risk Theatre Read of Marlowe’s DOCTOR FAUSTUS

OKANAGAN COLLEGE, KELOWNA CAMPUS

PRESENTED TO TERRY SCARBOROUGH’S SECOND YEAR ENGLISH CLASS

OCTOBER 29, 2019

 

1 INTRODUCTION TO MARLOWE AND DOCTOR FAUSTUS

Thank you, Terry for inviting me to talk about one of my favourite plays, Christopher Marlowe’s Doctor Faustus. My book, The Risk Theatre Model of Tragedy: Gambling, Drama, and the Unexpected came out earlier this year, and it examines this play in-depth. Like Aristotle’s Poetics, Hegel’s writings on tragedy, and Nietzsche’s The Birth of Tragedy, my book is a theory of tragedy, or an idea of how tragedy works. In this talk, we’ll go through the action of Faustus act by act, and end by a special treat: interpreting the play through the lens of different theories of tragedy.

The critic AC Swinburne called Marlowe “the father of English tragedy and the creator of English blank verse.” George Bernard Shaw called him “the blank verse beast.” TS Eliot called him “the bard of torrential imagination.” Who was Marlowe? Anyone know when he was born? 1564. Who else was born that year? Hint: some people think that he was Marlowe. Marlowe lived a life of intrigue, moving from the highest to the lowest levels of society. In his plays, he savaged Catholicism, but he was rumoured to be a Catholic sympathizer, or, worse yet, a raging atheist. For this reason, Cambridge wouldn’t give him his master’s until the Privy Council confirmed that his absences were excusable: he had been conducting espionage on her majesty’s secret service. He hung around unsavory characters. One of his roommates was the revenge tragedian Thomas Kyd, who was arrested when they lived together for writing papers “denyinge the deity of Jhesus Christ.” He was a notorious brawler, and when he has a character in one of his plays say that one must “now and then stab, as occasion serves,” one wonders if he is referring to himself (Young Spencer in Edward II). He also kept company with spies, double agents, and folks involved with the Babington plot to assassinate Queen Elizabeth. If nothing else, learn from Marlowe to keep better company: he was stabbed at a dive bar and died at age 29. At his death, his output towers over Shakespeare, who was born the same year. Marlowe at 29 had Faustus, the two parts of Tamburlaine, and Hero and Leander. The best works Shakespeare had at 29 were The Comedy of Errors and Richard III.

Faustus is one of my favorite tragedies because excitement is in the air. This is the English Renaissance. Renaissance from re- ‘back again’ and naissance ‘birth’. It was a rebirth because the Greek and Roman classics were being rediscovered in England. A lot of things had been lost in the Middle Ages, including the art form of tragedy. Most people think that, from Aeschylus, Sophocles, and Euripides in the fifth century BC, tragedy was an art form available to playwrights. Not true. The first English tragedy wasn’t written until 1561 when Thomas Norton and Thomas Sackville wrote The Tragedy of Gorboduc. The catalyst for the creation of English tragedy was the rediscovery of the tragedies of Seneca the Younger. From 1559 to 1580, John Heywood translated Seneca’s plays into English. You probably know Seneca as a philosopher and the tutor to the degenerate Roman emperor Nero. But he also wrote ten tragedies. When playwrights began imitating the political bloodbaths of Senecan tragedy with the existing English morality play, English tragedy was born.

When was Faustus written? Between 1588-1593 in the heyday of the English Renaissance. This was the age of colonialization. This was the age Greek and Roman classics were being rediscovered. This is the age of boundless ambition. You can even see evidence of the boundless energy of rediscovery in the text. Look at who Faustus mentions in the opening lines, all classical authors. First, he mentions Aristotle: “Yet level at the end of every art, / And live and die in Aristotle’s works. / Sweet Analytics, ‘tis thou hast ravished me!” (1.1.4-6). The Analytics are two volumes on logic, reasoning, and scientific knowledge. Next, he mentions the physician Galen: “Galen, come! / Seeing ubi desinit philosophus, ibi incipit medicus, / Be a physician, Faustus” (1.1.12-14). Next, he mentions Justinian, the famous Roman Emperor and lawmaker from the sixth century who codified Roman law. Aristotle, Galen, and Justinian were very much part of the intellectual culture in the English Renaissance: in Shakespeare’s Henry IV, written about a decade later the jolly knight Falstaff tells us he reads Galen. Late sixteenth century England was a time of incredible rediscovery, exploration, renaissance. Marlowe’s Faustus is the first man of this new age.

It’s been said that many of Marlowe’s creations are overreachers. In another tragedy, Tamburlaine conquers kings, and then steps on them to ascend the throne. Faustus is also of this overreaching mode. He’s mastered philosophy (Aristotle), medicine (Galen), law (Justinian), and theology. He has mastered every available arts and science. In his ambition to become master of reality, he is appetite incarnate. He doesn’t even need Mephistopheles to tempt him, he is so ambitious. In a ridiculous scene, when Mephistopheles gets teary eyed reminiscing on paradise lost, Faustus tells the devil to suck it up: “Learn thou of Faustus manly fortitude,” he says the Mephistopheles (1.3.87). Faustus embodies the energy of Renaissance England.

You know who he reminds me of?—another fellow in another age of 1980s excess Freddie Mercury, who once sang “I want it all.” Not only did he “want it all,” he had the audacity to define when he wants it: he “wants it right now.” And then he clarifies the scope of his appetite: though he wants it all and he wants it now, if you want the truth, “It ain’t much I’m asking.” He’s telling us that, well, you know, to want all right now is not to want enough. Insatiable appetite for knowledge, sensuality, and to be wanted characterize both Faustus and Mercury: death is no deterrent to the will. Remember, when Mercury wrote that he wanted it all, he already knew he had AIDS, which, at that time, was a death sentence. AIDS would not stop Mercury from wanting it all, nor would the loss of a soul stop Faustus.

2 PROLOGUE

Let’s consider the play’s structure. It begins with a choral prologue, a feature Marlowe borrows from Seneca’s plays. In the prologue, the chorus tells the audience what’s going to happen. It’s a big spoiler. Note all the classical references in the prologue: Mars, Carthage, the invocation to the Muse, and comparisons between Faustus and Icarus. To find a voice for English tragedy—in its infancy at this point—Marlowe marries Roman myths with the story of Faustus, a German magician from the Middle Ages. English tragedy is the child of pagan Rome and Christian Germany.

Consider how he gives a new English understanding to the ancient myths. Do you know the myth of Daedalus and Icarus? Daedalus build King Minos the labyrinth. Since Daedalus knew the secrets of the labyrinth, Minos imprisons Daedalus and his son Icarus in a high tower. Daedalus fashions waxen wings, warns his son not to fly too close to the heat of the sun, the son ignores the dad’s warning, flies where the eagles dare and plunges into the Icarian Sea. Let’s see how Marlowe plays on the myth:

That shortly he was graced with doctor’s name,

Excelling all whose sweet delight disputes

In heavenly matters of theology;

Till, swoll’n with cunning of a self-conceit,

His waxen wings did mount above his reach,

And melting heavens conspired his overthrow.

For, falling to a devilish exercise,

And glutted more with learning’s golden gifts,

He surfeits upon cursèd necromancy. (17-25)

Marlowe conflates Lucifer’s fall from grace with Faustus’ fall through the myth of the flight of Icarus. It adds another layer of depth into the play. As a side note, you can see how, centuries later, James Joyce finds his artistic voice in the same way differently in Portrait of an Artist as a Young Man. In this work, he identifies his protagonist with the mythic Daedalus by naming him Stephen Daedalus. Instead of a comparison with Lucifer, however, Joyce likens Ireland itself—a country he calls “a sow which eats her own farrow”—with the tower. Stephen is trapped in the tower of Ireland in his novel. And how does the artist escape the tower of Ireland? In a stunning twist, art provides the waxen wings for Stephen to soar free. The point of this digression is to show you how, if you keep taking Terry’s English classes, you can catch and appreciate the aesthetic beauty of how artists do new things with old stories.

3 FIRST ACT

Act one sees Faustus exhausting the limits of all the orthodox faculties one by one: philosophy, medicine, law, and theology. As he reaches the limits, he seeks dominion that “Stretcheth as far as doth the mind of man” (1.1.63). Valdes and Cornelius come to show him the dark arts and Faustus proves to be a quick learner. By scene three he has succeeded in summoning Mephistopheles. There’s a nice jab at the Catholicism when Mephistopheles’ true form proves to be too ugly, and Faustus commands the devil to “return an old Franciscan friar; That holy shape becomes a devil best” (1.3.25-26). England, since Henry VIII had been excommunicated by Pope Paul III, did not recognize the authority of friars and popes. I am sure in Protestant countries such as Germany, Marlowe’s play would have been popular, and less popular in Catholic countries such as Italy.

Act one also sees Faustus’ negotiations with the devil: he gives up his soul for twenty-four years of the devil’s services. This includes: living in voluptuousness, having the devil attend him, give him whatever he asks, answer all his questions, slay his enemies and aid his friends, and be in general obedient to his will. If there is any doubt of how Faustus and Marlowe’s characters are overreachers, just compare how “normal” folks make a pact with the devil. The violinist Vivaldi and blues guitarist Robert Johnson were content to give the devil their souls just to play violin and guitar. Faustus negotiates much more. That makes this play dramatic and exciting. How much is the soul worth? To Johnson, it was worth a guitar. To Vivaldi, it was worth a violin. To Faustus, it is worth power that “Stretcheth as far as doth the mind of man” (1.1.63).

Have you ever thought about tragedy as a valuing mechanism? Tragedy really dramatizes a gambling act. You want something. If you’re Faustus, you want world dominion. If you’re Macbeth, you want the Scotch crown. If you’re Loman in Miller’s Death of a Salesman, you’re after the American dream. If you’re in a revenge tragedy, you want revenge. Now, to get what you want, you have to ante up. If you’re Faustus, you ante up your soul. If you’re Macbeth, because you were too nice of a guy, to get the crown, you have to put up “the milk of human kindness,” or, in other words, your compassion. If you’re Loman, you have to ante up your dignity to pursue the American dream. If you’re a revenger, you have to ante up whatever stands in your way. Now, depending on what you pledge, you can see how much it is worth. How much is world domination worth? To Faustus, one soul. How much is mastery of the violin playing worth? To Vivaldi, also one soul. When you read tragedy, think of it as a valuing mechanism for human values. The more amazing the wager, the more life is worth.

Act one ends with a comic interlude where Wagner, Faustus’ boy, and the clown parody the earlier action. They have some fun with names when Wagner summons Belcher and Balioll or “Belly-all,” the comic version of Belial. Wagner’s clearly thinking about food. The clown Robin can’t get the devil’s names right either, referring to “Belly-all” as “Banio,” or “brothel.” His mind is in the gutter as well. Comedy often laughs at bodily functions. And the scene ends with a crack at Faustus’ name. Wagner says something completely bombastic and Robin replies: “God forgive me, he speaks Dutch fustian” (1.4.75). “Fustian” means “rant” or “gibberish” and is, of course, a play on Faustus’ name.

3 SECOND ACT

Act two begins with Faustus debating the momentousness of his pact with the devil. He wavers back and forth, and, as he wavers, to add to the dramatic effect, he’s visited by the Good Angel and the Evil Angel, who vie for Faustus’ soul. At the stroke of midnight, Mephistopheles returns to seal the deal. There’s a false start as Faustus’ blood coagulates as he tries to write “Faustus gives to thee his soul” (2.1.67). The momentousness of the undertaking is such that his very body revolts at the thought of giving over the soul. In a mockery of Christ, Faustus ends the ceremony by declaring consummatum est, “It is done,” the last words of Christ as he died on the cross. Christ had died to redeem humanity for their sins.

After the deal goes down, Faustus begins testing Mephistopheles with the pertinent questions of the day. You can see from their exchange the questions fascinating to Elizabethans. Where is hell? Is it possible to control the weather? Can we predict the path of the planets to come up with a better horoscope?

In act two is another comic scene. The clown Robin seems to have gotten a job as a valet; he’s looking after people’s horses at an inn. And he’s stolen one of Faustus’ conjuring books. In a caricature of Faustus, Robin tells his friend Rafe (or modern Ralph) how he’ll use his diabolical powers to “make all the maidens in our parish dance at my pleasure stark naked” and cast a spell over the kitchen maid so that Rafe can “wind her to thy own use” (2.2.3-4 and 29-30).

What’s the point of these comic interludes? These comic interludes seem to be a feature of Elizabethan tragedy. The Elizabethans learned how to write tragedy from copying Seneca and reading Chaucer’s description in the Monk’s Tale. The bodycount and pile of corpses they got from Seneca. The fall from grace and reversal of fortune they got from Chaucer. There are no comic interludes in either Senecan tragedy or Chaucer’s Monk’s description of tragedy. These comic interludes seem to be peculiar to Elizabethan tragedy. Even a generation after in the neoclassical tragedies of Racine and Corneille, you don’t find it. And you certainly don’t find it in the tragedies of the German romantics such as Goethe and Schiller. Nor do you see it in American tragedy in the twentieth century.

Shakespeare’s night porter in Macbeth is another example of comedy within tragedy. It’s a very peculiar Elizabethan thing. Like Marlowe, the humour emerges from the bodily functions. Among other things, the night porter in Macbethgives a little sermon on alcohol and sexual performance. A little bit, you know, okay. Too much, not good. Have you thought about the function of these comic interludes? I’ve always thought that the comic interludes to tragedy is the same as soda water to cigars. If you watch cigar aficionados like Arnold smoke big stogies, you’ll notice they don’t have them in one go. Since cigars don’t have accelerants, they go out if you’re not drawing. When they go out, you cleanse the palette with soda water. Then you’re ready to enjoy the cigar again. That’s how I see these comic interludes. They relieve the tension. They cleanse the palette, so you’re ready for serious action. These interludes are one of the gems of Elizabethan tragedy. It’s a particular innovation of this time that doesn’t occur before or after. Too bad.

Bevington and Rasmussen, the editors of the “Revels Plays” edition that I’m using, have set the comic scene between Robin and Rafe in act two. I’m not sure which edition Terry has you guys using, but this scene could also be in act three of your text. That’s where it is originally, but there’s a problem with the entrances and exits so the editors in my text have moved the scene into the second act.

This is a good segue into the text of Doctor Faustus. The play itself dates to 1588 (or as late as 1592). But the original play is lost. What we have is the “A-text,” written down in 1604 and the “B-text,” written down in 1616. The A-text is shorter. The B-text has more scenes, more devils, and more characters. The A-text focuses more on the tragedy of Faustus. The B-text focuses more on the spectacle of theatre. For example, the B-text adds a whole scene involving papal intrigue: while in Rome, Faustus and Mephistopheles rescue and whisk away the German Antipope Bruno, who has been captured by Catholic Italian forces. The A-text may have been written together from actors’ memories. The B-text seems to have been commissioned by an independent impresario with the instructions to take what worked well in the first decade of performance, and to build more of a spectacle around these scenes. The debate has shifted back and forth, and it is the consensus of late that the A-text is closer to what audiences saw at the original productions of 1588.

Back to act two. Act two closes with the Good Angel and the Evil Angel tempting Faustus. Faustus goes with the Good Angel, and cries out to Christ: “Ah, Christ, my Saviour, / Seek to save distrèssed Faustus’ soul!” (2.3.82-83). But, instead of Christ coming, the opposite happens: Lucifer himself comes to remind Faustus of their pact. To keep Faustus in line, Lucifer offers to show Faustus the seven sins. Here we see a repeating motif: Faustus, when he really thinks about it, repents and goes back to God. But what the devil does is to distract Faustus’ good intentions with little sideshows and promises of wealth. The play speaks to us on the nature of temptation. It seems we know what to do, but the devil tempts us with diversions: work a few hours overtime, check Instagram, Facebook, what’s going on on Twitter? Faustus doesn’t even enjoy the show the seven sins puts on, he tells the sins to scram. But they divert him long enough that he forgets about God, and, in the fight for Faustus soul, it’s the diversions that give Mephistopheles the advantage: 24 years goes by in a twinkling of the eye.

4 THIRD ACT

Let’s move on to act three. Act three find Faustus travelling through Germany (he starts in Wittenberg) and France on his way to Rome, the eternal city. We get a geography lesson from Mephistopheles on the sights along the way. It’s surprising, to an audience in the sixteenth century, such a trip is something on a scale that you need diabolical assistance. These days, I achieve the same thing getting a ticket on Expedia and listening to a tour guide. This brings us to an interesting point. To get the most out of classic works, not only do we have to follow the playwright’s imagination as we imagine all the scenes, how the characters look, how they move, we also have to imagine how Marlowe’s audience would have been wowed by all this. For example, take these three lines of Faustus talking about the sights in Naples:

There saw we learnèd Maro’s golden tomb,

The way he cut an English mile in length

Through a rock of stone in one night’s space (3.1.13-15)

There’s quite a bit involved in understanding them. First, you’ll have to know who Maro is. Maro is Publius Vergilius Maro. Back then, they referred to him by his cognomen, Maro. We call him today after his nomen, Virgil. Who knows, maybe in four-hundred years we’ll be calling him Publius: that’s what his family would have called him. Okay, so Faustus saw Virgil’s tomb. Virgil being the great Roman epic poet who wrote The Aeneid, the epic poem which recounts Trojan Aeneas’ journey to Italy. So what’s the connection? Well, Virgil today is known as a writer of epic, but back then, he was rumored to be a magician too. So that explains why Faustus talks about the mile long tunnel between Naples and Pozzuoli that Virgil built in one night: it ties in with the magic motif of the play. Because of his powerful magic, his epic poem the Aeneid was a popular fortune telling device at this time. Want to know the future? Flip open the Aeneid to a random page, read the verses, and, they will tell you. Handy, eh?

What else? To understand these lines, we also have to know something about Virgil’s celebrity in this era and Marlowe’s own debt to Virgil. Marlowe wrote another tragedy on Dido, the Queen of Carthage. She’s the queen that saves Aeneas when he gets shipwrecked escaping the fall of Troy. Marlowe’s primary source was Virgil’s epic, the Aeneid. Even a century after, when Purcell created the first English opera, it was the story of Dido that he set to music. So, if you know all these little facts, it’s possible for you to engage with all the layers of meaning in the text. The point of literature, I think, is to fill us with a sense of wonder and awe, and we can feel the wonder and awe when we can understand first the words, then the meaning the words convey, then how the contemporary audience would have reacted, and then why the writer chose to use such and such a reference. We feel wonder over how these writers and audiences of the past are alike and similar to us, and awe over how Marlowe puts together all these words, verbs, and adjectives imbued with so many layers of image and meaning. If you are into the wonder and awe, keep coming to Terry’s English classes!

What else is in the third act? There’s Mephistopheles and Faustus’ run in with the friars and the Pope. Predictably, there’s jokes at the Catholics’ expense. For example, Mephistopheles refers to the summum bonum or “highest good” of the monks as being belly cheer. We see the inversion of the Catholic theodicy in this joke and others, such as Faustus’ request that we discussed earlier for Mephistopheles to appear in the form of a Franciscan friar. This play, with some daring, turns religion topsy-turvy, and it’s been conjectured the Puritans who shut down theatre in 1642 likely used it as an example of why the theatre should be censored. People from more traditional backgrounds might look askance at Faustus’ declaration consummatum est (“It is done”) that we discussed earlier, or the profane “Last Supper” with his fellow scholars playing Christ’s disciples that comes up in act five.

In fact, because there is an A-text of 1604 and B-text of 1616, we can see infer that there was some backlash to some of the risqué religious elements: certain cuss words have been cut out from the text “snails,” “zounds,” “sblood,” and so on. Do you know what they’re abbreviations of?—“snails” is for “God’s nails,” “zounds” is for “God’s wounds,” and “sblood” is, of course, for “God’s blood.” Their cuss words were based on the wounds of Our Lord the Saviour on the cross. In fact, there are urban legends around this play that during the scenes where the devils come on stage, sometimes the actors would be confused: where did that extra devil come from? No doubt it was an Elizabethan devil that happened to be flying over and, when he heard the actors wracking the name of God, came down to investigate.

Since it’s so close to Halloween, I’ll share with you my own diabolical Faust story. True story. In 2014, I took the ViaRail across Canada, sleeper cabin. So many things happened on that trip that in the one week, I accumulated years of experiences and memories. I had to bring something to read on the train: what better thing to do than to overlook the Rocky Mountains, sip on a beverage, and read classic literature. Well, every ten years or so, I revisit the German scientist and artist Johann Wolfgang von Goethe’s interpretation of the Faust legend. It was time.

Faust is a German legend. That’s why Marlowe’s Faustus starts off in Wittenberg, Germany. And that’s why Goethe, the granddaddy of German letters, immortalizes him in his two plays, Faust: Part One, written in his youth, and Faust: Part Two, written in his eighties. The historic Johann Georg Faust was an actual scholar, alchemist, doctor, and magician from Helmstadt, Germany who lived from 1480-1541. He claimed to be able to perform the miracles of Christ: at one point he was referred to as the “demigod of Heidelberg.” He died, perhaps, in an explosion when an alchemy experiment went bad. Hence the legend that Faustus’ body was found dismembered from devils tearing him apart.

In 1587, a German “chapbook” or cheaply produced book came out which collected all these stories of the actual Faust from the fifteenth century. This book was a bestseller, reprinted several times in the same year in German, and translated into English shortly after. Marlowe’s play—except for the comic scenes—follows the so-called “English Faust Book” closely. It pretty much is the “English Faust Book” set into blank verse with the addition of some comic scenes. Goethe, when he wrote his Faust, had access to both Marlowe’s play and the “German Faust Book.” By the way, “Faustus” is just the Latinized version of the German name “Faust.” In a strange coincidence, faustus is also the Latin adjective meaning: “fortunate, lucky, or auspicious.”

On my train trek across Canada, I brought Philip Wayne’s verse translation of Goethe’s Faust. I also brought my Norton edition, which has the German text and a crappy but literal translation on the facing page. Also, on this train trek, I was going to experiment with different sleeping patterns: our eight hours of sleep is a very modern thing. I was going to break up the eight hours of sleep into three long naps throughout the day. So that meant I would be up in the middle of the night. On the first night, I set the alarm for 3am. I got up, and started reading Goethe’s Faust. In no time, I got to the scene where Faust summons up the earth spirit with a powerful spell. It was going great. But then I thought, “You know, to really get at the heart of poetry, I need to read it out loud.” Yes that was good. And then I thought some more: “To really feel the jingle and the jangle of the metre, I should be reading the German out loud.”

I was reading the spell to summon up the ancient earth spirit out loud, and quite loud, because, on the train, the noise of the tracks conceals quite a bit. Now, as I was doing this, I heard a banging in the sleeper cabin behind me. I thought it might be train noise, but no, definitely banging. In the cabin behind me was where Maria, one of the train attendants, was staying. She had help set me up by explaining how the beds folded down. You see, in the sleeper cabin you get a washroom, a little sink, and a bed in a 6’ x 4’ space. The bed folds down over everything, so if you have to use the washroom in the middle of the night, you have to fold up your bed. Maria was from the islands on the westcoast of BC, a Catholic lady originally from Quebec. I got up, went to her door, and knocked. When she answered, she looked white as a sheet, I said I heard some noise and asked if everything was okay. She said yes, and it was a little bit awkward and then I went back to my room.

The next day, I saw Maria in the breakfast cabin. She came up, and apologized. She said, “Sorry, I had a bad dream.” I said, “That must have been some dream.” She replied, “Yeah, I thought the devil came up to me and was sucking out my soul.” At that point I got some goosebumps: when this dream came up to her, I had been in the next cabin reciting out Faust’s spell to conjure up the earth demon! Anyways, when this happened, I must have looked a little weird and she must have felt a little sheepish so we sort of headed our separate ways.

But then it gets better. So I told you I was reading Philip Wayne’s brilliant verse translation of Goethe’s Faust. A nice Penguin edition, I love Penguins. On the cover is an image of Mephistopheles flying over Wittenburg. Now, I would be sitting on the train, and there’s only so many places you can sit on the train before you run into everyone. And every so often, Mariah would walk by and we would chat. And I could tell as we were chatting she was looking at my book to see what I was reading: you can always tell when someone is looking, but trying to pretend that they’re not looking. It makes it so much more obvious. Because of what happened, I would sort of tuck the book away into the corner whenever she came. Again, just like a surreptitious glace, when you try to surreptitiously scoot something away so as not to draw attention, you draw that much extra attention.

We played this game until one day, me and Mariah were chatting, and the cook came out. “What are you reading?” he asks, and, before I could do anything, grabs the book which I had laid upside down on the table. “Oh, Faust,” he says, “isn’t that the story of the guy that makes a bet with the devil and gets his soul sucked down into hell?” At this moment, I could see a pale expression come over Maria’s face, like “Oh my God!” Without saying a word, she got up and left. I didn’t really know what to say either. I could say: “Your dream had nothing to do with me, I swear.” But how could I even say that? Luckily, the train was just about at Winnipeg. The crew change happens there, the western crew catches the train back home, and the eastern crew pick up. I never saw her again, but once in a while, I think back on this experience on the ViaRail.

What else is in act three of Marlowe’s Doctor Faustus? After Faustus boxes the Pope on his ears, there’s a comic scene between Robin and Rafe. With Faustus’ magic book, they succeed in summoning Mephistopheles. Apparently, souls, like apples, come in different grades. Mephistopheles is so mad that he has come so far to collect two such unworthy souls that he turns Robin into an ape and Rafe into a dog. As befits the “bodily functions and appetite” theme in these comic scenes, Robin replies that as an ape he’ll never run short of being fed nuts and apples, and that Rafe, as a dog, will have an unending supply of porridge. Dogs, at this time, could always be found licking out porridge pots.

5 FOURTH ACT

The action shifts to Spain in act four. Mephistopheles and Faustus go to visit Charles V. There they entertain the Holy Roman Emperor by conjuring up shades of Alexander the Great and his paramour. After entertaining Charles V, they start to head back to Germany, and Faustus reminds us that twenty-four years have almost passed:

Faustus: Now, Mephistopheles, the restless course

That time doth run with calm and silent foot,

Short’ning my days and thread of vital life,

Calls for the payment of my latest years.

Therefore, sweet Mephistopheles, let us make haste

To Wittenberg. (4.1.100-105)

They are going full circle, going back to Wittenberg, where Faustus will find heaven or hell. If he repents, he will find heaven. God’s mercy is infinite. If he fails to repent, he will find hell. And again, in the horse-dealer scene, Marlowe reminds us that Faustus’ time draws to its end:

Faustus: What art thou, Faustus, but a man condemned to die?

Thy fatal time doth draw to final end.

Despair doth drive distrust unto my thoughts.

Confound these passions with a quiet sleep.

Tush! Christ did call the thief upon the cross;

Then rest thee, Faustus, quiet in conceit. (4.1.139-144)

Faustus recollects here a scene from the Gospels, Luke 23:43 where Christ and two thieves are set upon crucifixes at Calvary (not cavalry, which are troops on horseback). One thief asks Christ if he is the Messiah, why doesn’t he save them. Perhaps the incorrect thing to say. The other thief, however, has faith, and says to Jesus, “Remember me when you come into your kingdom” (Luke 23:43). He has faith, and Jesus responds “Amen I say to you today you will be with me in Paradise.” The key is that the thief has faith. Faustus, however, has no faith. He despairs: “Despair,” he says, “doth drive distrust unto my thoughts.” What is despair? Do you recall the scene where Jesus raised Lazarus from the dead. He says: “This sickness is not unto death,” meaning that, even though he’s dead, he’s not going to die from whatever sickness he had, since Jesus is going to raise him. Kierkegaard would ask years later: “Okay fine, Lazarus didn’t have the sickness unto death. But then, what is the sickness unto death?” His answer was “Despair. Despair is the sickness unto death.” So with Faustus, we can see a species of this sickness of despair in him. He repents (which is good), but he despairs (which is bad because it’s the sickness unto death. His repentance is a sort of negative repentance. Because he despairs, he can’t find God’s grace. We can see Marlowe play with this theme between despair and repentance elsewhere, for example later on in act five Faustus says:

Accursed Faustus, where is mercy now?

I do repent; and yet I do despair:

Hell strive with grace for conquest in my breast:

What shall I do to shun the snares of death?

Likewise, after the Good Angel and the Evil Angel vie for Faustus’ soul in act two, Faust comes ever so close to going back to God, but ultimately concludes:

My heart’s so hardened I cannot repent.

Scarce can I name salvation, faith, or heaven

But fearful echoes thunder in mine ears:

‘Faustus, thou art damned!’ (2.3.18-21)

Act four closes with two scenes. Now Faustus has come full circle back to Germany. In the horse-dealer episode, he’s back in Wittenberg and in the concluding scene, he’s in an adjoining duchy called Vanholt. You can see from the Vanholt episode how far we’ve coming along in the last 400 years: to get out of season grapes back then, you needed a miracle or diabolical assistance. Today, to get out of season grapes, you go down so Save-on-Foods. Passages like this fill me with wonder, as I think of how, things that seem miraculous today will be, in the distant future, commonplaces.

6 FIFTH ACT

Now, act five, this is where the blank verse jingles and jangles the best. It is full of purple passages. “Purple passage” is the term for a brilliant lines out of a work of literature. The colour purple was associated with majesty, as to make the colour purple in the old days required grinding down tens of thousands of a particular type of shell in a laborious process. And so a purple passage is a like a line that lords it lesser line. The most famous must be Faustus reaction when Mephistopheles brings him Helen of Troy:

Was this the face that launched a thousand ships

And burnt the topless towers of Ilium? (5.1.91-92)

A textbook example of synecdoche, the poetic device of using a part (in this case “the face”) to represent the whole (Helen herself). Then consider this:

O lente, lente currite noctis equi!

The STARS move STILL; time RUNS; the CLOCK will STRIKE;

The DEVil will COME, and FAUStus MUST be DAMned.

O, I’ll LEAP up TO my GOD! Who PULLS me DOWN?

See, SEE where CHRIST’s BLOOD streams IN the FIRmaMENT!

One DROP would SAVE my SOUL, half a DROP. AH, my CHRIST! (5.2.74-80)

Playwright and critic George Bernard Shaw called Marlowe “the blank verse beast,” and we can see why from this passage how Marlowe raised the power of blank verse, or unrhymed iambic pentameter to express the profoundest moments of the soul in pain. He quotes the Roman poet Ovid in the first line in a wicked reversal: Ovid’s plea “Run slowly, slowly, ye horses of the night!” was originally an invocation to delay the dawning day so that the lover could have another moment with his beloved. Then, Faustus imagines himself in a sort of delusional frenzy jumping up to heaven, but unable to escape hell’s gravity over him. Then, in one of the wickedest images, Faustus sees the blood of Christ streaming in the heavens. What is this? A comet? Or is it like the plane of the Milky Way galaxy on a clear night? The image is unsettling. What is Christ’s blood doing streaming in the firmament? And where is Christ?—Faustus has called out to him a couple of times and up pops the devil instead. The more I think about this wonderful line, the more I wonder at what sort of diabolical intellect behind this image. I mean, who sees this sort of stuff? But it’s pure poetry: even though the logical mind rebels, the image makes innate sense.

How does blank verse work? In each line, there’s ten syllables: “The STARS move STILL; time RUNS; the CLOCK will STRIKE.” The ten syllables can be subdivided into five metrical feet, each of which has one short and one long syllable: “The STARS” that’s one “move STILL” that’s the second “time RUNS” that’s the third, and so on. If you rhyme the line endings as well, you get sonnets. But this is blank verse, so no rhymes. English sort of naturally works itself into iambs so Marlowe’s lines have a good flow. Consider this more modern poet, who also wrote in iambs: “I WILL not EAT green EGGS and HAM! I WILL not EAT them SAM I AM!” Iambic pentameter was the meter of Shakespeare and later, of Milton. It really captures a perfection in the English language. Driving, powerful, onwards streaming. It was in the 1560s, or a generation before Doctor Faustus that the poets began writing the first verse plays such as Gorboduc. But it took a Marlowe to bring it to its full powers of expression in Doctor Faustus. Not only is the rediscovery of the Greek and Roman classics happening in the English Renaissance, the poets are also finding ways of the national language to express the English identity. And I think it’s important to consider not only the vitality that streams through this play because they were going through a Renaissance, but to also consider the vitality of England inventing its national meter in blank verse. Homer and Vergil wrote in dactylic hexameter. Marlowe, Shakespeare, and Milton had iambic pentameter

Besides the purple passages in act five, what else do we notice? One thing, as the play draws to the end, is that there are no women in this play. That’s sort of odd. The only other play that I know of in any language without women is Seneca’s Thyestes. And the other touching thing about act five is that Faustus has his first real conversation, that is, a conversation not with underlings, devils, and royalty. In his conversations with the Old Man and the scholars, he talks with equals, he tells them of the diabolical pact and we get the first real conversation: “Oh, by the way, I’ve been doing all these great things the last 24 years because I made a pact with the devil.” “What?!? Time to turn back to God, my friend!” Which brings us to the final question: what is this play about? Is it a Christian play, like the old morality plays that predate it, that warns good Christians not to fly too close to the sun on waxen wings because hell awaits?

There’s an ongoing debate over when exactly Faustus’ soul is condemned. Some say that he seals the deal way back in act two when he signs the contract with Mephistopheles because the contract stipulates that Faustus becomes “a spirit in form and substance” (2.1.97). Others say it’s when Faustus takes Helen to be his paramour in act five since he commits the sin of demoniality. I think Marlowe means for us to understand that, until he’s dragged down to hell, Faustus’ has a choice to turn back to God. Otherwise why have deep into act five a scene where the Old Man and the Good Angel attempt to persuade Faustus to go back onto the straight and narrow way? What do you think? Does Faustus have free will? Does the question of predestination or free will  change how you look at the dramatic qualities of the play? When the play came out, Calvinist theologies which did not believe in free will (how can will be free if God foreknows everything) were in vogue.

7 DOCTOR FAUSTUS THROUGH THE LENS OF LITERARY THEORY

Since we’ve been talking about magic, let’s close this evening with talk about literary theory, which is a sort of magic in itself. A theorist is a powerful magician who can make texts speak in tongues. You can do interesting things with theory. Let’s start with Aristotle’s Poetics, which, interestingly, wasn’t available in England in Marlowe’s time. It was one of those lost works which hadn’t been rediscovered yet. In an Aristotelian reading of Faustus, Faustus is somewhat like us. We can identify with the hero: that is how tragedy makes us feel pity (because he suffers) and fear (instead of Faustus, the devil could be drawing us down to hell). Through some kind of hamartia, which is a tragic flaw or error, Faustus undergoes a reversal in fortune. The error is that he associates with devils and practices forbidden arts. Through his destruction, because we feel pity and fear, we undergo catharsis, or a cleansing of pity and fear. When we undergo catharsis, become a better judge of human action, of how character and intention are intertwined. The moral of the story in the Aristotelian reading is: don’t do what Faustus did.

The next major theory of tragedy was from the German philosopher Hegel. He saw that the tragic arose when two opposing, irreconcilable, and equally justified ethical forces collided. In Faustus, these two opposing ethical forces are the right to knowledge and our loyalty to God. God created us; we owe him allegiance. But we also have a right to knowledge, since we already have become mortal because we ate from the Tree of Knowledge. But God holds back on our knowledge of the spheres, of astronomy, of the inner workings of hell. Both these irreconcilable forces break out in Faustus, and he is destroyed. In his destruction, the institution of the church is restored.

After Hegel came Nietzsche, and his theory of tragedy. In Nietzsche’s analysis, there are two colliding mental states, exemplified by the Good Angel and the Evil Angel. The Good Angel voices the rational and conscious mind, which Nietzsche named after Apollo, the sun god. The Evil Angel voices Faustus’ subconscious desires. The subconscious force Nietzsche referred to as the Dionysian, after the Greek god of dreams, intoxication, and ecstasy. These two forces wrestle internally for control of Faustus’ fate. When they collide, Faustus is destroyed, but, in his destruction, the veil is lifted off of reality. We see how good and evil do not matter, but what matters is how Marlowe transforms Faustus’ story into the aesthetic phenomenon of art.

Risk theatre finds that each dramatic act in tragedy is also a gambling act. In the risk theatre analysis, Faustus bets that he can have his cake and eat it too. In the risk theatre analysis, Faustus bets that he can have world dominion and keep his soul. He bets that at the end of 24 years, he can repent. The scenes between the Good Angel, who tries to get Faustus to repent, and the Evil Angel, who distracts Faustus with the world’s pleasures. But Faustus takes on too much risk in making the pact with the devil. Because he’s taken on too much risk and concentrated his powers too far on one position, he triggers a low-probability, high-consequence event: at the end of 24 years, he finds that, when he most needs to repent, he can’t. He’s become too jaded. He had a good plan to eat his cake and have it too. A sort of Voltaire plan. Voltaire, who cursed the church when he lived, but had the last sacraments administered as he lay dying. But something happened that he didn’t think would happen. The years of power and pleasure hardened his heart. Risk is the dramatic fulcrum of the action. Risk triggers the unexpected ending. When audiences see what happens to Faustus, they emerge from the theatre with a higher understanding of how more things can happen than what we expect will happen. Do not concentrate your powers too far on one position. Keep the powder dry. Have a Plan B. Risk theatre dramatizes risk gone awry on the stage so we become more robust off stage.

So these are four interpretations of the same play. Notice how theory allows you to draw quite different conclusions. This is the magic of theory.

The full transcript of this talk is available on my blog, https://melpomeneswork.com/okc-doctor-faustus/

For more on Risk Theatre, see https://risktheatre.com

Thank you, remember to tell people about risk theatre, and see you down the road!

Full Transcript of “Why Do We Enjoy Tragedies?” – Presentation at Okanagan College

WHY DO WE ENJOY TRAGEDIES?: RISK THEATRE, A NEW 21ST CENTURY THEORY OF TRAGEDY

OKANAGAN COLLEGE, KELOWNA CAMPUS

OCTOBER 28, 2019

1 THE THEORY OF TRAGEDY

Am I at Okanagan College, home of the finest English Department in Canada? Thank you, Terry Scarborough, for the invitation. Great to see everyone here. Tonight, I have for you an amazing asset you can use to interpret and create literature. It’s a theory of tragedy called “risk theatre.” It will change the way you look at literature. Theories of tragedy are fascinating. They bind together drama, literature, and philosophy for a higher calling. They’ve been studied for over two thousand years, and will be studied for another two thousand years.

The art form of tragedy has entertained audiences for 2600 years. In fifth-century Athens, the “big three” of Aeschylus, Sophocles, and Euripides lit up the stage. In ancient Rome the philosopher Seneca wrote tragedies, as did the emperors Augustus and Nero. Tragedy enjoyed major resurgences in the English Renaissance (Shakespeare and Marlowe) and Neoclassical France (Racine and Corneille). The German Romantics Lessing, Schiller, and Goethe had a turn and, in the twentieth century, Arthur Miller and Eugene O’Neill brought tragedy to America. Tragedy has been with us a long time, and will continue for a long time after us.

The question: “Why do we enjoy tragedy?” has captivated the greatest minds from Aristotle to Hegel and Nietzsche. If you think about it, it’s odd that we enjoy tragedy. Tragedy depicts stories full of strife and sorrow. It should be repugnant to see our most exalted heroes go down in a blaze of glory. But it fires up our emotions like no other art. To answer why we enjoy tragedy, a dedicated genre called the theory or philosophy of tragedy arose. The theory belongs to a branch of philosophy which investigates the role of art: aesthetics. And though the theory of tragedy is but a limb on a branch of philosophy, if you tally all the words written in pursuit of higher learning over the last two thousand years, you’ll find that only the field of biblical exegesis has generated more discussion. The philosophy of tragedy is a cornerstone of western thought. Tonight, you’re going to assess a new asset in the interpretation of tragedy called risk theatre.

There’s hundreds of minor theories of tragedy. Of the major theories, perhaps a dozen. And then, there’s the big three. Let’s take a look at them. In the fourth century BC, they were interested in teleology, or the final purpose of things (from telos “end” and logos “story”). Predictably, Aristotle, who was around at that time, devised a theory of tragedy which explained tragedy’s final purpose. According to The Poetics, the purpose of tragedy is to elicit a cleansing or catharsis of the emotions of pity and fear through pity and fear. The tragic protagonist, through hamartia, or an error, undergoes a reversal in fortune. Because we recognize the protagonist to be similar to ourselves, we feel pity and fear. And, in feeling pity and fear, we are cleansed of these feelings to become better judges of character.

Flash forward to the eighteenth century, Newton’s century, a clockwork and mechanistic century full of colliding and ricocheting billiard balls all obeying Newton’s laws. The German philosopher Hegel lived in Newton’s wake. Predictably, Hegel saw tragedy as the product of collisions. To describe the tragic, he took the idea of the colliding mechanical masses in Newton’s cosmos and transformed these mechanical collisions into ethical collisions. The “tragic” is the sense of wonder that arises from seeing how equally justifiable ethical positions cancel one another out.

Flash forward to the nineteenth century. The invention of the irrational world of the subconscious. Dostoyevsky illustrated the power of the subconscious in his novel The Double. Is Mr. Golyadkin’s double an actual walking and talking double or a projection of the mind? No one knows. As though taking his cue, Nietzsche devised his theory: tragedy originates in a collision of psychological forces. To Nietzsche, tragedy is the collision between the rational mind, which he referred to as the Apollinian, after the sun god Apollo, and the irrational mind, which he referred to as the Dionysian, after the god of dreams, intoxication, and ecstasy. The tragic is the higher understanding that occurs when these psychological forces collide. In the destruction of the hero we catch a glimpse of a higher reality that eludes the grasp of either the conscious or unconscious mind when considered individually.

We see from the influence of Aristotle, Hegel, and Nietzsche how the theory of tragedy transcends art. It begins as an art form; art is the spark. The spark raises aesthetic issues: why do sad stories excite us? The spark becomes a flame. Next, tragedy raises ethical issues. Why do we suffer? The flame becomes a fire. Next, tragedy raises psychological questions. Is the rational mind thrall to irrational drives? The theory of tragedy gives rise to psychology and psychiatry. It influences the development of drama, screenwriting, and the novel. It imprints its image onto the visual and plastic arts. The theory of tragedy now sweeps through culture, like a raging inferno. They are powerful creations, all ubiquitous, which shape our imaginations. If it’s one theory you master, master the theory of tragedy. It will serve you well.

In a teleological age, Aristotle devised a teleological model of tragedy. In a mechanistic age, Hegel devised a mechanistic model. In a psychological age, Nietzsche devised a psychological model. If we want a modern theory of tragedy, we must ask: in what sort of age do we live?

2 RISK

We live in an age of risk. If you count the number of scientists active today, you’ll find they outnumber the aggregate number of scientists who existed from the dawn of time to 1970. Today’s army of scientists also work faster than ever. With AI and quantum computing, they can solve equations in seconds, equation that were deemed unsolvable in the past. The totality of scientific knowledge doubles every few years.

With great knowledge, we take great risks. We gamble. We design terrible weapons to keep us safe. Yesterday, bombs could destroy a town. Today, bombs imperil civilizations. We globalize the world’s financial systems. Yesterday, a rogue financial model would ruin individual traders; today, rogue models mire the world in misery. We gene-edit and engineer all varieties of life. Yesterday, the Irish Potato Famine decimated Ireland; today, Monsanto plays God with all the world’s crops. Yesterday’s local risks are today’s global risks. We are the new titans, overreachers in an age of risk. How else do we describe an age which creates artificial black holes at CERN? They say, “Of course it’s safe, what could go wrong?” But I’ve seen risk go awry the day Deepwater Horizon blew out or the day Challenger fell from the sky. Because we live in an age of risk, we will make risk the fulcrum of the dramatic action in tragedy. Today, tragedy is a theatre of risk.

Playwrights write in and they say they want to write tragedy, but the mystique of its motivations and nobility and flaws puts the art form out of reach. Critics look at tragedy, and they see it as a barbaric relic of the past. Because we live in an age of risk, let’s reclaim tragedy by making risk the fulcrum of the dramatic action. Tonight, we’re going to talk about how it’s not hamartia or a tragic flaw, but rather, heroes blow up because they make delirious wagers. Tonight, we’re going to talk about how it’s not pity and fear, but anticipation and apprehension: anticipation for what the hero wagers and apprehension for how the perfect bet goes awry. Tonight, we’re going to talk about how it’s not the Oedipus complex, but rather, it’s about thrilling low-probability, high-consequence outcomes that happen against all odds. Tonight, we’re going to take the mystery out of tragedy so that even a young child can understand.

What is risk? To some people, it’s a four-letter word. It means danger. Avoid it. This lay definition ignores risk’s upside. Risk is also reward. Economists will tell you risk is volatility. They tell you that because they can quantify volatility in their equations. Economists define risk by measuring how many standard deviations a measurement is removed from the average. Think of the familiar bell curve. The average is the top of the curve. Risk is what happen at the tails at either end. That’s why you hear of unexpected low-probability events being referred to as “tail events.”

Here’s how statisticians quantify volatility: if the average height of a human male is 5’10,” if you’re between 5’7” and 6’1”, you’re one standard deviation from the mean. But let’s say you’re 5’4” or 6’4”. Then, you’re two standard deviations from the mean. It keeps going: if you’re 5’1” or 6’7”, you’re three standard deviations from the mean. Mathematically, 68% percent of males will be one standard deviation from the mean, or between 5’7” and 6’1”. 95% percent of males will be within two standard deviations from the mean, or between 5’4” and 6’4”. The “risk” of being short or tall can be quantified in terms of standard deviations away from the mean of 5’10”.

Volatility is wanting as way of defining risk. Volatility quantifies the likelihood of “known knowns” and “known unknowns” but fails to quantify the likelihood of “unknown unknowns.” You can’t put odds on unknown unknowns. Volatility fails because it can only predict what’s already happened. It predicts the punches you see coming, but fails to predict the punch you don’t see coming. Like any boxer knows, the knockout punch isn’t the punch you see, but the punch you don’t see. So we’re back to the question, what is risk? I propose that risk is simply that more things can happen than what we think will happen. When more things happen than what we think will happen, the consequences can be very high because we’re unprepared.

Here’s an example. Consider the fortifications of the Maginot Line. In the years leading up to the Second World War, the French war minister Maginot knew that Germany was chaffing under the punishing Treaty of Versailles. It was not a question of if Germany would attack, but when. Maginot thought Germany had two options, and he bet that he could outwit his German counterpart. Option one: attack France’s industrial heartland in Alsace-Lorraine by advancing through the southeastern border. Option two: attack from the northeastern border by going through the Benelux countries, an act that would mobilize France’s allies. Maginot went all-in by building massive fortifications to protect Alsace-Lorraine: he would force Germany into option two. This way, Germany would face the combined allied forces on Belgium soil.

Great plan. But something unexpected happened. Germany attacked through the Ardennes Forest. Seeing that the dense wood was considered impassable, it had been left open. More things happened than what Maginot thought would happen. When they attacked through the Ardennes, they got behind the French defenses: the massive fortifications were now facing the wrong way. Paris fell in a month. Low-probability does not equal low-consequence. In fact, the consequences of low-probability events may be cataclysmically high because unexpected harms hurt you the most.

What happened? It starts with a good plan. Then, because the plan is good, you invest yourself all-in. Why not, the plan is good, right? Nothing could go wrong. Then “more things happen than what you think will happen.” Oh no! By going all-in, you’ve left yourself exposed. You haven’t kept your powder dry. There’s no plan B. Because you’ve overextended yourself, you’ve left yourself open to a world of hurt. Risk hurts because low-probability events carry high-consequences. If you’re driving a shiny red sports car, risk isn’t the telephone pole you see. Risk is the telephone pole you don’t see. Risk, by this definition, naturally lends itself to drama.

3 MACBETH

Let’s map this definition of risk onto a tragedy. You know, each theory of tragedy champions a particular play. Aristotle loved Sophocles’ Oedipus rex. Hegel loved Sophocles’ Antigone. And Nietzsche was fond of Shakespeare’s Hamlet. Risk theatre champions Shakespeare’s Macbeth. Macbeth works fantastic in a risk theatre reading. It’s popularity on the stage today is a fantastic sign risk theatre is on the right track.

Macbeth. Macbeth makes a wager for the crown. Risk theatre begins with a gambling act. You need the gambling act because it triggers the low-probability, high-consequence event. This is crucial. The gambling act is to risk theatre what natural selection was to Darwin’s theory of evolution. Many talked about evolution before Darwin. They’re not remembered. Darwin is remembered because he came up with the mechanism called natural selection which explains how evolution works. So too, many have commented on unexpected endings in tragedy. What risk theatre gives you is the mechanism of the gambling act which explains how tragedy generates the unexpected outcome. The more you wager, the more you concentrate your powers in one position, leaving yourself open to unexpectation.

To be king, Macbeth bets that he can get away with murdering Duncan. Like Maginot’s plan, his plan is perfect: ply Duncan’s chamberlains with wine, kill Duncan in his sleep, frame the chamberlains for murder, murder the chamberlains in turn. Macbeth even has supernatural assurances from the witches: until Birnam Wood comes to Dunsinane Hill and until he meets a man not born of woman, he can’t be harmed. What are the odds of Birnam Wood coming to Dunsinane Hill? They are low: how can the trees, rooted into the earth, move up the hill? The odds of encountering a man not of woman born are even less, as all men are born of women.

But, see what happens. As Malcolm’s forces advance on Inverness, they hew down Birnam’s branches for camouflage. Birnam Wood comes. Then, when Macbeth meets Macduff on the ramparts, he tells Macduff he doesn’t want to fight: his hands are overstained with the blood of Macduff’s wife and babes. He tells Macduff he has a charmed life: no man of woman born can harm him. But Macduff tells him, he’s an anomaly: he was not of woman born. He was born by C-section. All is lost: Macbeth had not anticipated these low-probability, high-consequence events. Of course, the audience certainly anticipates it, and that’s what makes drama engaging, as the audience, once they hear the witches’ prophecy, tries to figure out how Shakespeare will bring Birnam Wood to Dunsinane Hill and find an avenger not of woman born. Macbeth is fascinating because risk drives the action, bringing Macbeth’s best-laid plans to naught.

4 OEDIPUS REX

Let’s turn to another well-known tragedy: Oedipus rex. If you have a theory of tragedy, it’d better be able to explain how the major tragedies work. In this play, a plague strikes Thebes. King Oedipus asks the oracle how to lift the plague. The oracle answers: “Find and remove the regicide who walks amongst you.” To do a risk theatre interpretation, find the bet. Oedipus bets that he can find the murderer of the previous king and he stakes his reputation on it. It’s a good bet, as he’s the sharpest wit. He had, remember, solved the Sphinx’ riddle. By going all-in on his bet, Oedipus exposes himself to risk, or the danger of more things happening than what he thinks may happen. That risk manifests itself, when, contrary to expectation, Oedipus finds out that he himself is the regicide. Like Macbeth, this play is fascinating because Sophocles makes risk the dramatic fulcrum of the action.

The further we look, the more we see how Sophocles builds unexpected low-probability, high-consequence events into the play’s deep structure. Oedipus knows the oracle that he would sleep with his mother and kill his father. What he doesn’t know is that he’s adopted. He thinks that Polybus and Merope, the King and Queen of Corinth, are his birth parents. Listen closely, this is how the cat comes out of the bag. Oedipus is busy conducting interviews and getting nowhere in the cold case. Then, all of a sudden, a messenger comes from Corinth to tell him: “Your dad died, congratulations, you’ve inherited the Corinthian throne!” Oedipus, perplexed, says: “How could that be, the oracle said I would kill my father … I ran away from home to avoid killing him … perhaps he died from grief because I left?” At this point, the Corinthian messenger says, “Oh, you’re worried about that? Don’t be. You’re not actually from Corinth, you’re adopted. You’re originally from Thebes. You see, by some really weird low-probability, high-consequence series of events, I’m not only some random Corinthian messenger, I had also saved you when you were a babe. You see, I used to work around here, you were left to die, I saved you and brought you to Corinth where the childless king and queen adopted you.” “Who are my parents?” asks Oedipus. “That I don’t know,” says the messenger, “I got you from the shepherd. You’d have to ask the shepherd.”

By some coincidence, they’ve already sent for the shepherd. You see, the shepherd also has an unexpected double identity: not only was he charged by Oedipus’ parents to expose Oedipus, he’s also the sole-surviving eyewitness of Laius’ murder. You see, on that day Oedipus committed his ancient act of road rage, the shepherd was also there at the crossroads, as part of Laius’ train. The shepherd, when he comes out, refuses to say anything. But under pain of torture, he speaks. Yes, Jocasta and Laius gave him a babe to expose. He shackled the babe to a crag by its feet, but relented. Yes, the babe grew up to slay his father on that fateful day. How did he recognize Oedipus after so many years? When he crucified the babe to the crag, he drove a stake through its feet. The wound left a tell-tale scar.

What we have here is absolutely extraordinary. As Oedipus conducts the investigation into Laius’ death, a messenger comes. The messenger, by some strange synchronicity, knows that Oedipus was adopted, because he had saved him years ago. Then they meet the shepherd, who had given baby Oedipus to the messenger years ago. Then, in another twist of fate, it turns out the shepherd was also part of Laius’ train that day Oedipus struck Laius down. If this isn’t the dramatization of risk, then, I don’t know what is. Oedipus rex demonstrates how heroes, by incessantly raising the stakes, trigger low-probability, high-consequence events.

Critics have fixated on catharsis; we feel pity and fear because we’re like Oedipus. But is that true? If anything, he’s different. It’s only because we’ve heard about catharsis so many times that we start to believe it. He’s not like us. He’s a king. He’s the smartest person alive.

Critics have fixated on Oedipus’ supposed tragic flaw. His pride in wanting to escape the oracle. But is that true? If someone told you that you were going to do something horrible, wouldn’t you try to avoid it? In the sequel, Oedipus at Colonus, Oedipus has come to peace with himself. “How was I to blame?” asks an older and indignant Oedipus. I agree. He did what he had to do.

Critics have fixated on the Oedipus complex. The play is about subconscious desires. This interpretation is wrongheaded as it rests on overreading Jocasta’s one line consolation to Oedipus. Oedipus worries that he will fulfill the prophecy by sleeping with his mother. Jocasta consoles him: “Have no fear, many a man, in his dreams, has shared a mother’s bed.” This line has been made too much of. Her words are a stock consolation in tragedy. The consolation: “You’re not the only one … many others have also endured this” is formulaic and hardly means a thing. The chorus, for example, in Euripides’ Hippolytus, says a similar consolation to Theseus when his wife suicides: “Not to you alone has this grief come, many others have lost a trusty wife.”  So too, in Shakespeare’s Hamlet, Claudius consoles Hamlet with the “many others also” consolation: “But you must know your father lost a father, / That father lost, lost his.” When Oedipus fears sleeping with his mother, the stock formulaic consolation would be to say, “Not to you alone has this fear come, many others have also slept with their mothers.” But, of course, Jocasta can’t say this, since everyone believes Oedipus is innocent. So, the stock consolation has to do a little twist to become: “Many a man, in his dreams, has shared a mother’s bed.” The line should not be taken to mean Oedipus has a complex. That’s the last thing Jocasta would even want to imply at this moment.

If those are the other readings, what’s the risk theatre reading? Risk theatre says that Oedipus motivates the action by raising the stakes. In the beginning, it’s a murder investigation. But then the murder investigation slowly turns into an investigation into Oedipus’ past. The stakes rise with each successive interview. First, there’s the interview with the prophet Tiresias. Since Tiresias is a prophet, he knows. But he doesn’t want to ruin Oedipus. He says: “Just send me home. You bear your burdens and I’ll bear mine. It’s better that way.” But Oedipus doesn’t stop. Risk goes up. At some point, his wife has figured it out, figured out who Oedipus really is. She begs him to stop, saying: “Stop—in the name of god, if you love your own life, call off this search. My suffering is enough.” But Oedipus doesn’t stop. Risk goes up. He has one more chance. In the final interview, the shepherd, like the others, implores him to stop: “No—god’s sake master, no more questions!” But Oedipus charges into doom.

This “charge into doom” is what I mean by saying “risk is the dramatic fulcrum of the action.” Unexpected, low-probability, high-consequence events are, by definition, unlikely. But the more you throw caution to the wind, the more you expose yourself to the fallout from random events. A one day delay in the post shouldn’t kill you. But it does in Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet. Friar Lawrence and Juliet have a brilliant plan to bring Romeo and Juliet together. They’ll let Romeo know by post. The letter carrier walks into his buddy’s place to say hi. The health authority happens to quarantine the house at that moment. The letter doesn’t make it to Romeo in time. You know the rest. What’s happened? The more risk you take on, the more you interconnect seemingly unrelated events until the point where any random event can blow you up. So too, Oedipus, by going all-in, exposes himself to the fateful meeting with the messenger and the shepherd. So too, Macbeth, by going all-in, exposes himself to Birnam Wood. Tragic heroes trigger low-probability, high-consequence events by raising the stakes to the point where they blow up.

5 GO BIG OR GO HOME

How do we transform risk, or the danger of more things happening than what you think will happen, into riveting drama? Let’s expand on the gambling analogy. If, at the casino, a gambler lays down $10, sometimes things happen that the gambler expects will happen. In the game of poker, the gambler wins $10 if the gambler has three of a kind, expects that the other player has a pair, and is correct. And sometimes the unexpected happens. For example, if the gambler believes the other player is bluffing, but the other player isn’t bluffing, then he loses $10. There’s risk here, as something has happened that the gambler didn’t think would happen. But these are boring nickel and dime bets. You won’t see spectators standing around the table.

Now, consider what happens if the players move to the no-limit table and start betting $1000. More spectators would crowd around as they can now invest their emotions into the outcome. Some come to see gamblers blow up. Others cheer them on. The larger the bet, the more the spectator is transformed into a speculator. They crowd around, these armchair quarterbacks, speculating on, debating, and themselves betting on the outcome. Tragedy fascinates because tragedy dramatizes helter-skelter wagers.

Remember Richard Jessup’s novel The Cincinnati Kid—the one made into a Steve McQueen movie? It capitalizes on our fascination with the big bet. To become number one poker five card stud star, the Cincinnati Kid has to take down grizzled veteran Lancey “The Man” Howard. Their epic match comes down to the last hand. They both know the Kid has two pair and maybe a full house. They also both know the Man has one high card and maybe a straight or a straight flush. The Kid knows Lady Luck smiles on him. In a two-handed game of five card stud, the odds of a straight flush (that’s what the Man has) beating a full house (that’s what the Kid has) are over 300 billion to 1 against (Anthony Holden). This is a sure fire bet, like money in the bank. The Kid makes the bet. He goes all-in. He even leverages his position, borrowing a fortune to wipe the Man out. A large crowd gathers around. The crowd murmurs assent: the Kid has the Man by the neck. But, against 300 billion to 1 odds, the Man does have the straight flush. The Kid loses all. The spectators let out a shocked gasp and wonder: how did the perfect bet go wrong?

Tragedy, by dramatizing delirious all-in wagers, engages audiences in the exact same way. If you bet $10, a 300 billion to 1 event can happen, and you’d be fine. Well you’d be out $10. Yawn. The low-probability event doesn’t have high-consequences. It’s only when you lay it all on the line that the 300 billion to 1 event has high-consequences. When the 300 billion to 1 event has high-consequences, then, we have the lights, camera, and action of true tragedy.

6 COMMONPLACES ON THE STAGE OF TRAGEDY

Critics have said that proud and boastful characters populate tragedy because pride is a tragic flaw. Tonight, I call out these critics. It’s true, tragedy is full of proud and boastful characters. Playwrights, however, create proud and boastful characters not to give them a flaw, but because proud and boastful characters love risk. Inordinate, all-in delirious risk makes drama big. When the drama is big, audiences flock to see the show, because risk transforms spectators into speculators. The more the hero bets, the more the hero engages the audience. It’s the Cincinnati Kid principle: the more they wager, the more the spectators invest their emotions into the outcome as they start speculating. Does the Man have the straight flush? Will the Kid pull it off? If they’re betting $10, who cares? Change the channel. But if they’re all-in, leveraged up to their gills with their reputations on the line—then, stay tuned.

Let’s look at how tragedy sets up big bets. Consider Caesar in Shakespeare’s play. Should he go to the Capitol? You’ve heard the warnings. The soothsayer tells him to stay at home: “Beware the Ides of March.” The haruspex inspects the entrails of the sacrificial animal: oh no, the heart is missing! His wife has a nightmare: Caesar’s statue bleeds. Spirits walk the streets. Birds shriek out of season. A lioness whelps in the square. Graves yield their dead. The sky rains blood. If one of these things happened, it would be a good sign to call in sick. When all these signs happen, definitely do not leave the house. But not Caesar.

See how Caesar ups the ante each time he’s told to stay at home. First time:

Caesar: I rather tell thee what is to be fear’d

Than what I fear; for always I am Caesar.

second time, “Caesar stay at home!”

Caesar: Caesar shall forth; the things that

threaten’d me

Ne’er look’d but on my back; when they shall see

The face of Caesar, they are vanished.

third time, “Caesar stay at home!”

Caesar: Cowards die many times before

their deaths;

The valiant never taste of death but once.

and fourth time, “Caesar stay at home!”

Caesar: I am constant as the northern star,

Of whose true-fix’d and resting quality

There is no fellow in the firmament.

Like Oedipus who continued the investigation in defiance of the warnings, so too Caesar presses on like a bull in a china shop. He’s a proud egocentric. But it’s not hubris or a fatal flaw. Shakespeare makes him proud and egocentric so that he can raise the stakes and appear believable. We find many egomaniacs in tragedy because egomaniacs are natural-born gamblers.

Any theory of tragedy must be able to explain the world of tragedy: the characters, the setting, and the other commonplaces. Ever wonder why there’re so many idealists in tragedy? Take Creon and Antigone in Sophocles’ play. Creon’s a patriot. He’s for the fatherland to the point that, when his niece is caught burying her brother, a traitor in the civil war, he sentences her to death. Risk theatre can explain his idealism: Sophocles makes him an idealist because idealists love risk. So too, Sophocles makes Antigone a religious zealot so that she can take on inordinate levels of risk and do so with conviction. She knows she shouldn’t bury her brother, but because she’s devout, she will satisfy the gods of the underworld. Because she’s an idealist, she spits out Creon’s edict by saying: “I have longer to please the dead than please the living here: in the kingdom down below I’ll lie forever.” Because they’re idealists, they love to walk the walk by raising the stakes.

We’ve explained the egocentrics and idealists. What else can we explain? Have you wondered why there are so many aides, attendants, and advisors in tragedy dispensing crappy advice? Here’s why: if you have a prudent and circumspect hero, and you need them to go all-in, you give them the reckless advisor. Take Euripides’ play Hippolytus. The goddess Aphrodite strikes Phaedra with an incestuous desire for her stepson. Phaedra resists. Rather than give in, she would rather starve to death. But she has a trusted advisor in her Nurse. Her nurse says, “I can arrange the hookup. There’ll be no loss of honour.” Phaedra trusts her. When the Nurse’s plan backfires and Phaedra’s husband finds out, she will have to lay it on the line by framing her stepson for rape.

Next. Why are there so many kings, queens, and other one-percenters in tragedy? Hamlet, Prince of Denmark, the Duchess of Malfi, Thomas Becket, Archbishop of Canterbury. Again, it’s to do with risk. It’s hard to wager the world on an empty stomach. I mean, what are you going to lay down, your hunger? But, when you have ancestral capital, military capital, and human capital all burning a hole in your pocket, it’s easy to lay it on the line.

How about the supernatural elements that seem to litter the tragic stage?—the witches, ghosts, and oracles? They’re there to instill confidence. When heroes have confidence, they love risk. Look at Macbeth. Listen to the apparition, who tells Macbeth to take on risk, “Trust me,” it says, “I’m from another world. I have inside information. You’re all good. Fire at will.”

2 Apparition: Be bloody, bold, and resolute: laugh

to scorn

The pow’r of man; for none of woman born

Shall harm Macbeth. Descends.

Macbeth: Then live, Macduff; what need I fear of thee?

Ever consider why passions run white hot in tragedy? Tragedy seems to be full of lovers, maniacs with explosive rage disorder, and revengers screaming for vengeance. Why is that? Again, it’s because these types of emotions increase risk taking. Take a look at Shakespeare’s Othello. Othello’s “constant, loving, and noble nature” makes him ill-suited to carry out crimes of passion. No problem: Shakespeare has Iago put Othello “into a jealousy so strong / That judgement cannot cure.”

What about setting? Why do tragedies feature a world on the cusp: insurrection, inquisition, war. Risk theatre explains this. Risk comes at a price: the potential for loss. During times of political and social stability, why take on extra risk? Extraordinary situations are commonplace in tragedy because they skew risk to the upside: not taking risks incurs greater risk. Take the game of football. The “Hail Mary” pass where the quarterback throws a long desperation pass into the end zone is a hazardous interception-prone affair. You don’t do it if you’re ahead. But when you’re down and the clock is down and you’re far from the end zone, the “Hail Mary” option becomes attractive. That’s why tragedy dramatizes outlier events: witch trials in Miller’s Crucible, Britain rent in three in King Lear, plague in Cadiz in Camus’ State of Siege, or civil war in Aeschylus’ Seven Against Thebes. When the world is ablaze, risk’s enticements more than compensate for its blandishments.

7 TRAGEDY AS A VALUING MECHANISM

Tragedy is a theatre of risk. The very structure of tragedy goads heroes to go all-in. No nickel and dime bets allowed! High rolling heroes and no-limit tables only! Risk theatre welcomes egocentrics or idealists. If they waver, look—here’s a trustworthy aide that speaks words of encouragement. Are they superstitious? Then goad them on with witches and oracles. Should that not suffice, souse them in the wine of passion. Give them access to the wealth of nations, armies, and all that glitters so temptation burns a hole in their pocket. Should that not suffice, destroy all they hold dear. Then, they go all-in. And when they go all-in, spectators start speculating on the outcome, investing their emotions into the action.

Risk theatre sees each dramatic act in tragedy as a gambling act. And this has the most fascinating implications, as it transforms tragedy into a valuing mechanism for human beliefs, values, and ideals. Tragedy accomplishes this through an extension of the gambling analogy. In each gambling act, what is staked is put up against what is at stake. If you bet, for example, $10k to win a golden crown, what is staked—the $10k—is put up against what is at stake—the crown. You show how much you value the crown by how much you’re willing to bet. If you really wanted it, you might wager more, say $20k. Of course, in tragedy you can’t use money to win the crown. Cash isn’t legal tender in tragedy. You have to make your wagers in the human currency of blood, sweat, and tears. We call the sorts of wagers we see in tragedy existential wagers. Through these existential wagers, tragedy becomes a valuing mechanism for human assets. 

We already know the value of material possessions. A gallon of milk is worth $4.99, but how much is compassion, or the milk of human kindness worth? We find out in Macbeth. Macbeth is too compassionate to murder Duncan. No one knows this better than Lady Macbeth, who complains he is “too full o’ th’ milk of human kindness / To catch the nearest way.” So, to become king, Macbeth must ante up the milk of human kindness. In the act of anteing up the milk of human kindness, we see how much Macbeth values it. How much is the milk of human kindness worth? In Macbeth, it is worth a Scottish crown.

Risk theatre allows us to ask and answer such questions: how much is dignity worth? In Miller’s Death of a Salesman, traveling salesman Willy Loman stakes his dignity on the American Dream. He buys the American dream at the cost of his dignity. How much is a human soul worth? In Marlowe’s Doctor Faustus, we learn that a soul can be worth twenty-four years of world domination. How about faith, how much is faith worth? In Robert Bolt’s A Man for All Seasons, we find out that one can purchase faith by laying down one’s life. How about the action of revenge, how much is that worth? In The Revenger’s Tragedy, Vindice lays to pawn his fraternal and filial bonds to become a revenger, bribing his own mother to pander his sister.

As a valuing mechanism, tragedy provides a social function. In our material world, too many things have become monetized. We value people in terms of their net worth: he’s worth 100k, she’s worth 200k. Insurance policies set a price on life and limb. We work, some for minimum wage, and others for more, exchanging life for greenback dollars. Tragedy’s social function reminds us that the things that are truly worth having are bought by blood, and not gold. Tragedy, despite its sad stories, exalts life by telling us that, the more we dare to wager, the more we set the value of life up on high. In tragedy, a soul can be worth the whole cosmos. Imagine that. Tragedy teaches us that human values lie beyond the monetary pale.

8 COMPARING RISK THEATRE WITH OTHER THEORIES OF TRAGEDY

Let’s compare risk theatre head to head with Aristotelian, Hegelian, and Nietzschean interpretations using Sophocles’ well-known Oedipus rex. In the Aristotelian analysis, we identify with Oedipus as we realize that there is a bit of Oedipus in all of us. He has a tragic flaw though: pride. He wants to defy the oracle that says he will murder his father and marry his mother. Because of the tragic flaw, or hamartia, he experiences a reversal of fortune. The elements of the plot follow the rules of probability, and are causally connected. When we witness his doom, we undergo catharsis and are purged of the emotions of pity and fear because, like a scapegoat, he has perished so that we do not have to.

In the Hegelian analysis, there’re two colliding ethical forces. There’s the will of heaven, which declares that Oedipus will marry his mother and kill his father. Then there’s the will of man, Oedipus’ will, which says: “I will not do that, heaven be damned.” Both these wills are justified. Heaven has a right to pass sentence on mortals. But Oedipus also has the free will to object to heaven’s sentence. The tragic results when these wills collide and Oedipus is destroyed. In Oedipus’ destruction, the justice of the gods is upheld. Oedipus is a scapegoat who perishes so that the justice of the gods can reaffirm itself.

In the Nietzschean analysis, there’re two colliding mental states. There’s Oedipus’ rational mind, which is Apollinian. It seeks to break free from the oracle, the oracle that’s said that he’ll kill his father and murder his mother. With the daylight of reason, thought, and logic, the conscious mind speaks: “I must get away from Corinth and avoid mom and dad.” Then there’s Oedipus’ subconscious desire which is Dionysian, primal, dark, brutal. The Dionysian desire comes out in his dreams, where he has lain with his mother and overcome his father. When these two mental states collide, Oedipus is destroyed, but, in his destruction, the veil is lifted off reality. We see how life doesn’t matter, but what matters is how we transform strife and sorrow into the aesthetic phenomenon of art.

In the risk theatre analysis, Oedipus stakes his reputation on solving the murder of the previous king—he is, after all, the original riddler, the one who solved the Sphinx. As the investigation continues, the focus on the identity of Laius’ murderer shifts to the question of the identity of Oedipus himself: they are, after all, the same person. Sophocles draws in the spectators, transforming them into speculators by having Oedipus raise the stakes by refusing to call off the investigation. Finally, Oedipus triggers the unexpected low-probability, high-consequence event by bringing the Corinthian messenger together with the shepherd, the two people who can unlock his secrets. In the risk theatre reading, contrary to Aristotle, the elements of the plot do not follow the rules of probability, but rather, the elements of the plot conspire to bring about the most improbable outcome. Because the audience sees everything Oedipus sacrifices—his crown, his eyes, the life of the queen, and his children’s legacies—the audience learns that we pay for our goals and desires by blood, sweat, and tears. The audience then leaves the theatre marveling at how low-probability, high-consequence events shape our lives more than we like to think. By comparing different theories, we can see how each casts tragedy in a drastically different light. 

9 TRAGEDY, COMEDY, AND RISK

Everyone always asks: what about comedy? Risk, remember, can skew to the downside or to the upside. Tragedy dramatizes downside risk. In tragedy, against all odds, Birnam Wood is always coming to Dunsinane Hill. Comedy, however, dramatizes upside risk: you make a bet, the odds are completely against you, but somehow you win. In Menander’s comedy, The Girl from Samos one of the characters says, “Coincidence must really be a divinity. She looks after many of the things we cannot see.” You would definitely not say this in a tragedy. In tragedy, God is not on your side.

In comedy, low-probability, high-consequence events also occur. In Greek Old Comedy, the women in the play Lysistrata bring an end to the Peloponnesian War by staging a quite unexpected sex strike. In Greek New Comedy and Roman comedy, against all odds, the miser always recovers the stolen gold, kidnapped children are always reunited with their families, and young lovers always find ways around cantankerous patriarchs, onerous marriage laws, and a host of economic and social prejudices.

In comedy, chance is on your side. Don’t have a dowry? No problem, a pot of gold turns up. Can’t get married because you don’t have citizenship? What’s this trinket you have on your wrist? Oh, many years ago I had to give up my daughter because I fell on hard times, but I gave her the very trinket you’re wearing. Oh, what do you know, you’re about her age. Could it be, are you my long lost daughter? Oh!—that means you’re a citizen and you can get married to this fine young man! Tragedy and comedy both dramatize low-probability, high-consequence events. They’re really two sides to the same coin. Think of tragedy as the art that dramatizes downside risk, and comedy as the art that dramatizes upside risk.

10 RISK THEATRE MODERN TRAGEDY COMPETITION / CLOSING REMARKS

In conclusion, I’ve given you a powerful asset for writing and interpreting literature called risk theatre. Risk theatre explains why we find tragedy fascinating. It’s fascinating because of the delirious hazards heroes take on. When you do a risk theatre reading, first, find the bet. What does the hero want, and what is the hero willing to lay on the line to get it? Once you’ve found the bet, you can see how tragedy acts as a valuing mechanism by setting a price on human ideals and beliefs. The price it sets is the price the hero is willing to pay. You will see how tragedy exalts life by imparting great value onto life. In tragedy, the milk of human kindness can buy a kingdom. Once you’ve found the bet, you’ll understand why the commonplaces of tragedy are the way they are. You’ll understand why tragedy loves instability and inquisition. You’ll understand why the hero is an egomaniac and why passions run white hot. You’ll understand the role the oracles, witches, and the supernatural play. You’ll understand why minor meddlers dispense crappy advice. You’ll understand why tragedy is populated by kings, queens, and other one-percenters. After you come to an understanding, you will marvel agape at how low-probability, high-consequence events upset the best-laid plans of mice and men. As you marvel the power of unexpectation, you will realize walking out the theatre that it is when we are most sure of ourselves that we are, paradoxically, in the greatest danger.

You’ll emerge from the theatre with a higher sensibility of risk. And this is perfect, as in this age of risk, we have a moral imperative to come to grips with risk. We dramatize unintended consequences on the stage of tragedy so that we become more robust off the stage. And because risk theatre imparts upon us a higher understanding of risk, I think that makes it a most valuable asset, as not only does it help us interpret literature, it also helps us to interpret life.

Risk theatre is more than a theory. I’ve teamed up with Langham Court Theatre in Victoria to inaugurate the Risk Theatre Modern Tragedy Competition (https://risktheatre.com/). It’s the world’s largest tragedy playwriting competition with a combined prize package worth over $17,000 dollars. The contest is in its second year. In its first year, I’m thrilled to announce 182 playwrights from 11 countries participated in this exploration of risk in the modern world. Wherever you are, please ask your local library to make my book: The Risk Theatre Model of Tragedy [Friesen Press 2019] available. Let’s share this amazing asset. Once you look at literature through the lens of risk, you’ll never look at it again the same way.

The transcript of this talk will be available on my blog melpomeneswork.com/okanagancollege/

Thank you.

Book Release – The Risk Theatre Model of Tragedy: Gambling, Drama, and the Unexpected

The Risk Theatre Model of Tragedy Cover

The Risk Theatre Model of Tragedy Cover

This post has been thirteen years in the writing. It was during the winter of 2006 that I came up with the idea of the dramatic art form of tragedy as a theatre of risk. On February 4, 2019, the softcover proof of my book: The Risk Theatre Model of Tragedy: Gambling, Drama, and the Unexpected arrived on my doorstep. After unwrapping the book, I had to sit down on the couch. Overwhelmed. I spent some time looking at it and flipping the pages. They did a good job at Friesen Press with the jacket design. Austere, plain, and authoritative. It’s a handsome book. The 8.5″x5.5″ form factor brings the book to 368 pages. Perfect thickness. 8.5″x5.5″ feels good to hold in the hand. The ink smells fresh. The cover has a grainy waxy texture to it. The pages are cream. Light deflects better off cream than white pages. Easier on the eyes.

After what felt like a long time sitting on the couch just looking at the book and turning it over in my hands, I started reading parts. Randomly. A couple of pages here and a couple of pages there. Though I knew the words inside and out, I noticed how differently it felt to read them in a book rather than on a printout or on the screen of a laptop computer. The words read well. What I noticed reading the book was that it felt like I was reading a book rather than reading my own words. I say this because, while I was editing the manuscript on the laptop or a printout, it would always feel like I was reading my own words. The book makes the writing seem more distant. And I guess it is more distant now: the book is out there who knows where in the world. May it encounter happy readers and friendly critics.

Book Blurb

WHEN YOU LEAST EXPECT IT, BIRNAM WOOD COMES TO DUNSINANE HILL

The Risk Theatre Model of Tragedy presents a profoundly original theory of drama that speaks to modern audiences living in an increasingly volatile world driven by artificial intelligence, gene editing, globalization, and mutual assured destruction ideologies. Tragedy, according to risk theatre, puts us face to face with the unexpected implications of our actions by simulating the profound impact of highly improbable events.

In this book, classicist Edwin Wong shows how tragedy imitates reality: heroes, by taking inordinate risks, trigger devastating low-probability, high-consequence outcomes. Such a theatre forces audiences to ask themselves a most timely question–what happens when the perfect bet goes wrong?

Not only does Wong reinterpret classic tragedies from Aeschylus to O’Neill through the risk theatre lens, he also invites dramatists to create tomorrow’s theatre. As the world becomes increasingly unpredictable, the most compelling dramas will be high-stakes tragedies that dramatize the unintended consequences of today’s risk takers who are taking us past the point of no return.

Author Blurb

Edwin Wong founded the Risk Theatre Modern Tragedy Playwright Competition with Langham Court Theatre to align tragedy with the modern fascination with uncertainty and chance. It is the world’s largest competition for the writing of tragedy (visit risktheatre.com for details). He is an award-winning classicist with a master’s degree from Brown University, where he concentrated on ancient theatre. His other research interests include epic poetry, where he has published a solution to the contradiction between Homeric fate and free will by drawing attention to the peculiar mechanics of chess endgames. He lives in Victoria, BC and blogs at melpomeneswork.com.

Emerging Local Authors Collection

The Greater Victoria Public Library, or GVPL for short, hosts an emerging local authors collection. It’s a great community resource for writers and readers alike. The softcover proof that came in last week has been deposited with the GVPL for inclusion in their emerging local authors collection this year. The Risk Theatre Model of Tragedy will hit the shelves at the GVPL in May 2019.

Preview the Book at Google Books!

Preview the book for free by clicking this link.

Amazon, Barnes & Noble, Chapters Indigo, Bolen Books, and Munro’s Books!

Friesen Press includes distribution in their publishing packages. This in itself was the one reason why I went with Friesen over a typesetter and a printer: Friesen partners with Lightning Source, a print-on-demand company, and the book distributor Ingram to make titles available on online booksellers including Amazon, Barnes & Noble, Chapters Indigo, and the FriesenPress Online Bookstore. Originally I had even toyed with learning how to typeset myself on LaTeX typesetting system: that’s what the author of Early Retirement Extreme did when he published his book. But Friesen’s help with distribution was too good to pass up.

Friesen can also make titles accessible to physical bookstores. To do so, authors must purchase book return insurance at $699 a year and opt for a 55/45 trade discount. That means, for every dollar the book sells for above the production and distribution costs, the wholesaler gets 55% and the author gets 45%. If the book costs $20 to produce and distribute and the book sells for $21, the wholesaler gets 55 cents and the author 45 cents. If the author goes for online sales only, the ‘short discount’ of 25/75 is used, and there is no need to buy the book return insurance. With the short discount, the author keeps more. If it costs $20 to produce and distribute the book and the book sells for $21, the wholesaler gets 25 cents and the author gets 75 cents.

For this rollout I went with the 25/75 short discount to make the title available online. It’ll take a few years for the Risk Theatre Modern Tragedy Playwright Competition to take off. When it does, it’ll make more sense at that time to get the title into brick-and-mortar bookstores. The $699 book return insurance at this stage of the game can be better used to support the competition.

Here’s where assiduous readers can get a hold of their very own copy of The Risk Theatre Model of Tragedy. All proceeds from the book go back into the playwright competition. Please tell your theatre friends and colleagues about this new and exciting dramatic manifesto! Please leave feedback at Goodreads, Amazon, or B&N. Even a few words can help other readers make a choice.

Munro’s Books

Softcover $19.95 available at their downtown Victoria branch on 1108 Government Street in Victoria, BC

Bolen Books

Softcover $19.95, available at their fantastic bookstore on 1644 Hillside Avenue in Victoria, BC

Amazon.com

Softcover $14.99, Hardcover $23.99, shipping in US $5.99 (orders over $25 qualify for free shipping)

Follow me on my Amazon author page: amazon.com/author/edwinwong

Amazon.ca

Softcover $19.94, Hardcover $31.91, shipping in Canada $4.98 (orders over $35 qualify for free shipping)

Barnes & Noble

Softcover $14.99, Hardcover $23.99, shipping in US $4.99 (orders over $35 qualify for free shipping)

Friesen Press Online Bookstore

Softcover $18.49, Hardcover $27.99, shipping in Canada $14.49

Chapters Indigo

Softcover $22.50, Hardcover $33.50, shipping in Canada $7.08

Reviews / Praise of The Risk Theatre Model of Tragedy

Winner in the Performing Arts Category – 13th Annual National Indie Excellence Awards (NIEA)

The author’s passion for his subject comes across in nearly every statement . . . An ambitious, though-provoking critique of tragedy in the 21st century.

Kirkus Reviews

****Fascinating side topics, including the invention of the concept of money and how it led to tragedies being boiled down to the price of life itself, are covered . . . Making the case for risk theory as a new definition for tragic theater, The Risk Theatre Model of Tragedy is a piquant, far-reaching study of tragedy as an art form.

Foreword Clarion Reviews

*****I’ve been dealing with theatre actively and academically for many years, and the idea of “tragedy” was wrapped in the mystique of motivations and nobility and flaws that put it out of reach for me as a playwright. This book strips away the mystique and makes the form available to me. Seeing risk as the fulcrum of the action clears my head and lets me see contemporary situations and conflicts in the light of risk and potential tragedy.

Donald Connolly – Goodreads

*****I think that “The Risk Theatre Model of Tragedy,” by Edwin Wong will be enjoyed by both writers and people who enjoy great drama. For myself, I enjoyed being able to read it a few days before I am to travel to Los Angeles to see a play. Personally, I feel what I learned while reading this will give me a greater perspective on the play. I will be able to view it with more depth. I think that this book would be a great resource for critical thinking courses such as a class on analytical reading.

Paige Lovitt for Reader Views

*****THE RISK THEATRE MODEL OF TRAGEDY is a fascinating dissection of tragic theater, focusing on both universal themes and specific tragedy models and is a must-read for any “theater geek.”

Kent Page McGroarty for IndieReader

*****THE RISK THEATRE MODEL IS A COMPELLING REINVENTION OF DRAMATIC STORYTELLING Edwin Wong has reinvigorated the ancient art of tragedy through his compelling Risk Theatre lens. Bravo! At heart, the book is a call to action for dramatists in our modern era to reinvent tragedy to address our brave new world of mesmerizing cacophony and unfathomable consequences. This is a fascinating read for anyone–but a “must read” for modern storytellers.

Roger Walker – Amazon

*****I have just finished reading Edwin Wong’s ‘The Risk Theatre Model of Tragedy’ and, although I was initially skeptical of his bold claim of an original theory of tragic drama, I was intrigued at the prospect of reading about this classicist’s main belief. As I turned the pages his theory grew on me and I found myself both convinced and gripped by this new perspective on tragedy. His low- probability, high-consequence outcome theory does indeed resonate with the risk takers of today and I thoroughly recommend this scholarly work to anyone interested in both theatrical and real life tragedy based on risk. As the author himself writes, ‘A working model of tragedy that is both original and rooted in tradition.’

A remarkable book in every way. A must for every serious dramatist to read, ponder over and act upon.

David Duncan – Goodreads

*****IF YOU EVER PLAN TO WRITE, READ OR ACT IN A TRAGEDY THIS IS THE BOOK FOR YOU! The author writes that “after two and a half millennia, tragedy is still a term in search of a definition.” He interestingly describes how each age creates its own model. The ancients “assigned the unexpected outcome to the will of the gods” while the Elizabethans established “the first great age of tragedy in the era of probability”. Mr. Wong provides a model for our highly technological time where “the possibility of doing great good or evil has increased” where “the unexpected always prevails”. He makes a very convincing case that the study of tragedy enhances our understanding of life and its value. As did I, readers of this highly stimulating book will undoubtedly ask themselves what they would be willing to wager in their lives and for what. As an actor who has performed in tragedies, and a playwright who has attempted to write one, I know that this is a book to which I will often refer.
PS: Be sure to read the footnotes which are chock full of good stuff from Wild Bill Hickok anecdotes to the link between tragedy and goats! Tragedy will rise again!!

Alan Thurston – Barnes & Noble

*****INNOVATIVE, ENGAGING, & VERY THOUGHT PROVOKING! Wong’s insightful and excellently-sourced treatise on “risk theatre” reframes our understanding of tragedy in terms of how hero’s (often flawed) analysis of risks and rewards prompts them to make decisions that set actions in motion leading to their tragic outcomes. He organizes information so effectively, providing relevant examples from classical and modern drama. You are never bogged down in the philosophy- rather, you are encouraged to expand how this new framework will inspire NEW content. Wong is hopeful in his desire to push the bounds of what modern tragedy will look like, and readers of this text and playwrights inspired by it are better for it!

Emily McClain – Amazon

****Anyone who has taken a story writing or screenplay class in America has likely come across The Hero With a Thousand Faces at some point. If not the exact book itself, then another author has often either borrowed quotes or elements of Campbell’s classic hero’s journey. Some teachers consider it inseparable to modern cinema and media; it’s just about everywhere.

But if Campbell’s ideas cause resistance—which is becoming a trend nowadays, in my personal experience at least—Wong’s smooth model may be a wiser introduction. Campbell’s form may get learners lost in the message, the process, and the terminology for understanding a work. Wong’s methodology encourages a focused structure for a character’s thought processes throughout the story. It’s through establishing their personal risks and the consequences of their actions that there can be a real momentum. For me, and I’m sure others, that is the best-if-felt heart. Makes a story beat and dance with life.

Sure, Wong arranges his processes for the tragedy genre in mind, so there are certain constraints that may not apply. Like a fateful mishap tripping the heroes’ supposed victory and leading to a death may not be appropriate for a children’s book. But I believe most of Wong’s proposed techniques can be used for anything that has a story. I’d recommend this for anyone who wants to write or needs a refresher on character building, not just in the theater world too. Useful framing device if you’re feeling stuck.

The Risk Theatre Model of Tragedy is a nimble read. If I were to criticize the writing, it’s close to a dry textbook with cohesive examples. Depending on the type of reader you are, that might mean a fascinating analysis or a snore fest. Several popular Shakespearean examples too, so that might not be up your alley to reread if you’ve already read so much of Shakespeare.

For me though, I enjoyed the overall experience and I learned something. If I lived in LA, I’d be up to seeing it in person too. Maybe someday, eh?

I received the book for free through Goodreads Giveaways.

Cavak – Goodreads

*****VERY INTERESTING READ Interesting review of risk as related to everyday life.

Gordjohn – Amazon

*****AN IMPORTANT WORK ON A FASCINATING TOPIC I loved this book! The author is a fan of my favorite playwright, Eugene O’Neill, and even quotes one of my favorite passages from LONG DAYS JOURNEY INTO NIGHT, where James O’Neill laments sacrificing his career for money, and wonders what is was he wanted.
The book itself is an entertaining and insightful reimagining of a model for modern tragedy – Risk Theater – into today’s world of technology and global risk. I think this is an interesting premise, as the modern tragic heroes are not kings but hedge fund managers and tech moguls, playing games of chance that risk the lives of people around the world.
The author has a deep knowledge of the classics which he utilizes to build a guidebook for how playwrights can use the concepts of existential gambles, unexpected events, and “the price you pay.” I particularly liked his theory or counter monetization, a welcome answer to a society that too often worships money at the expense of deeper values, and how that relates to a modern way of looking at tragedy.
The Risk Theater Model of Tragedy offers a fresh perspective not only of the classical theater but more importantly how we can restructure the old paradigms in a way that speaks to modern audiences. It’s an important work, and will hopefully inspire playwrights everywhere to reimagine classical themes in a dynamic and exciting ways.

Mike – Amazon

*****A POWERFUL TOOL FOR WRITERS As an emerging playwright challenged to write high stakes drama that often has tragic consequences, I am grateful to Edwin Wong for his book, The Risk Theatre Model of Tragedy. It gives me a powerful tool and template to write modern tragedy. It belongs on every playwright’s desk.

Marc Littman, playwright – Amazon

*****Oyez! Oyez! Oyez! Stunning! I had to re-read the “The Risk Theatre Model of Tragedy” by Edwin Wong. It was too good. It is a delight to recreate the possible scenarios exposed by the author in a very original thematic treatment of theater that invites further discussion and analysis. It is also a compendium of high academic and cogent discourse, a complete high level ‘theory’ on how to model and perform stage plays. He couples it with almost a ‘how-to’ reference guide on how to produce compelling theater by presenting the reader with an exhaustive analysis and classification of different facets of prior stage productions, from the Greek classics to modern times’ productions. The book is chock’full of insights and intriguing revelations. Edwin draws a narrative comparing and contrasting different elements of risk and relates these to modern audiences. The author’s vast breadth of knowledge, drawing upon his years of experience as a theatre critic and forward thinker in the performing arts world has crafted together a robust tome with incredible completeness and complexity – which should be on every aspiring playwright’s desk. I can anticipate a wave of theater academics referencing this book in their class syllabus.

Conchita – Amazon

*****If you haven’t read a scholarly book in a while and you feel that your brains are getting rusty, I recommend THE RISK MODEL of TRAGEDY. It manages to be highbrow but lucid, free of the cant of so much modern critical theory. The theatrical genre of tragedy was deemed to be needed along with comedy in ancient Greece, Elizabethan England, and should be re-invented in the USA today, if we truly want to be great. What are we afraid of?

Daniel Curzon – Barnes & Noble

“A fascinating exploration advocating for the resurgence of the classical art of tragedy in these tumultuous times . . . A nearly bulletproof argument for tragedy’s rebirth under the name of Risk Theatre.”—Editor, Friesen Press

*****The Risk Theatre Model of Tragedy is a book that will interest both specialists and book lovers who want to know “how it works.” It is also a recommended reading for modern risk takers.

Astrid Iustulin for Readers’ Favorite

Until next time I’m Edwin Wong, and I will continue to do Melpomene’s work.

The Myth of Risk Theatre (A Myth of Tragedy)

Many thanks to PL for inviting me to take the Risk Theatre tour to the University of Massachusetts, Boston! And thank you to all the students who came out on a sweltering summer day at the end of term to see the presentation! The feedback was great and I could see at the end of the presentation that some gears were turning. And why is it that I can only go to Boston during weather extremes? Last time I was here was during the “bomb cyclone” in January. And it must have hit 30 C today, and it’s only the beginning of May! Well, assiduous readers, here’s the presentation for your reading pleasure:

Presentation Delivered to Peter Lech’s Greek and Roman Tragedy Class

Classics 375, McCormack Room 417

University of Massachusetts, Boston

May 2, 2018

 

The Myth of Risk Theatre

 

How do myths function? One of their functions is to translate nature and culture into human terms. By telling a story, they instill human significance onto natural and cultural phenomena. How did the custom of young women dedicating a lock of hair prior to marriage arise? Why is there a temple of Aphrodite at Troezen? The Hippolytus myth answers these questions by incorporating nature and culture into a story filled with human significance. According to the myth, Phaedra built the temple after Aphrodite caused her to fall in love with Hippolytus. As for the custom, it was initiated by Artemis as a consolation to the dying Hippolytus: he would die, but his dedication to her would be remembered forever. Here’s another one: why does that star seem to blink every six days? Science would tell you it’s a variable star called Algol. But what myth would tell you is that that star is part of Medusa’s head in the constellation Perseus—you have to imagine that he’s holding up her severed head—and, what is more, that star denotes her eye: it blinks because by blinking, it signifies her power to turn to stone. So, one function of myth is to inscribe meaning onto patterns found in nature and culture, patterns which otherwise lack meaning. Myth helps us to understand the world in human terms.

What I’m going to give you today is a myth of tragedy called ‘risk theatre’. Just as the myth of Medusa or the myth of Hippolytus humanize the world around us, my ‘myth’ of risk theatre provides a framework of tragedy. I call it a myth because it’s not right or wrong, but a story of how tragedy works. In particular, risk theatre addresses a peculiar question: how can tragedy create suspense if it dramatizes popular, well-known myths? The stories of the Labdacid House (that’s Oedipus’ family) or the House of Atreus (that’s Orestes’ family) are so well-known that everyone knows how the story ends. Since the outcomes are foreknown, it’s hard for the stories to generate suspense. Take a look at Homer’s handling of the Oedipus myth. In Book 11 of the Odyssey, commonly referred to as the nekuia(after the ancient rite used to summon ghosts),Odysseus tells the story of his journey to the underworld where he sees the shade of Jocaste, Oedipus’ wife. He speaks a matter-of-factly about Oedipus’ crimes and how Jocaste committed suicide. There’s no suspense in Homer’s rendition of the myth. It’s bare bones. And it can be bare bones because everyone knows the tale. For Sophocles to keep audiences sitting on the edge of their seats, he has to get around the spoiler alert. How does he do this?

Here’s the solution risk theatre prosposes: the dramatic kernel of tragedy is a gambling act in which the protagonist wagers all-in. Because each dramatic act is a gambling act, unexpected things can happen. Bets can go wrong. And the bigger the bet, the more it can go sideways. The dramatist’s role is to suppress the odds of the foreknown outcome to make it seem like what must happen is not going to happen. Then, when it happens, it’s exciting.

In other words, the hero makes a big bet. Things seem to go the hero’s way. Because of the hero’s intelligence, skill, or strength, the hero appears to avert the outcome everyone knows is coming. But then an unexpected low-probability, high-consequence event happens which brings about the foreknown outcome. Tragedy dramatizes a bet which has gone horribly sideways. That’s why I call tragedy risk theatre.

That tragedy is a gambling act and that dramatists trigger the foreknown outcome by a low-probability, high-consequence event are the two postulates of risk theatre. Let’s look at both these postulates, beginning with how tragedians deliberately suppress the likelihood of what must happen to the point where, when it happens, it seemsto have happened against all odds.

By a low-probability event, I mean an event that is unlikely, an event that is 1000:1 against, an event such as Birnam Wood coming to Dunsinane Hill. In Shakespeare’s play the witches tell Macbeth that nothing can harm him until Birnam Wood removes to Dunsinane Hill. It’s highly unlikely for the trees to take up their roots and hike up the hill. But when the troops camouflage themselves under Birnam Wood, the low-probability, high-consequence event unfolds. Macbeth is caught flat-footed. All is lost. The play generates suspense by making it seem like the foreknown event (Birnam Wood’s going to come) is unlikely. Let’s take a look at some of the tragedies you’ve studied to see how ancient tragedians entertain audiences by suppressing the likelihood of the outcome everyone knows is coming.

Euripides’ play, the Bacchae, pits man against god. Although you know from the myth that Pentheus dies, Euripides’ goal as a dramatist is to suppress the foreknown conclusion so that when it takes place, it’s exciting. How does he do this? Look at how he portrays the rivalry between Dionysus and Pentheus. Dionysus is portrayed as a ninety-eight pound weakling who waltzes into Thebes with a retinue of eastern women. He’s cast as a drunk foreign dandy with long hair and scented locks who spends his days and nights cavorting around town. Pentheus, on the other hand, is cast as a capable warrior-king. He’s at the prime of manhood, fights before the home crowd, and has at his beck and call slaves, guards, archers, and soldiers. Pentheus has every expectation of prevailing. With all his resources, he’s going to throw this hobo out of town. But when, against all odds, the effeminate stranger turns out to be god, the fated outcome takes place and Pentheus is torn limb by limb. The closing lines—the same ones Euripides uses in many other plays—make it absolutely clear that he too conceived of tragedy as a theatre where unexpected low-probability events happen. Closing line are critical and ought to be read with care. That Euripides writes these lines confirms the risk theatre model of tragedy. Here are the lines as spoken by the chorus leader:

What heaven sends has many shapes, and many things the gods accomplish against our expectation. What men look for is not brought to pass, but a god finds a way to achieve the unexpected. (1388-1392)

Now, let’s look at the next play: Aeschylus’ Oresteia. This trilogy culminates in a showdown between Orestes and the Furies. The foreknown outcome is that the spirits of vengeance, the Furies, are transformed into the ‘Kindly Ones’ or the Eumenides, benevolent spirits who watch over Athens. Aeschylus’ goal as a tragedian is to suppress the foreknown conclusion so that when it takes place, it’s unexpected. How does he do this? He does so by emphasizing the extraordinary length of time the Furies have been engaged as spirits of vengeance. The Furies are the daughters of Night (Eum. 321). And Night is the offspring of Chaos, the eldest of all deities. That means the Furies have been persecuting blood crimes from the beginning of time, in fact, from way back when Kronos first castrated his father Ouranos. When the Furies come to the court of the Areopagus, they have every intention of winning. Who would have guessed that Orestes’ act of violence, from all the acts of violence from the beginning of time would result in the Furies being transformed into the Eumenides? The way Aeschylus frames it, it’s unlikely, and because it’s unlikely, when it takes place, it’s shocking.

Think of these events as ‘black swan’ events. This is the term popularized by Taleb, a mathematician and Wall Street trader in his books Fooled by Randomnessand The Black Swan. The term ‘black swan’ goes back to the Roman poet Juvenal, who used it as a byword for something that doesn’t exist. But then in 1697, to the shock of the world, they sighted a black swan in Australia. Taleb uses the black swan as a visual analogy of low-probability, high-consequence events. What I’m arguing today is that tragedy is full of black swan events: the bum who happens to be god, the forest that up and attacks the ramparts, or the day the Furies became the Eumenides.

Now, let’s look at a third play, Sophocles’Oedipus rex. We touched earlier on Homer’s bare bones narration of the Oedipus myth. Not very exciting. How does Sophocles add fire to the dramatization?—easy, he transforms the outcome into a black swan event. Everyone watching knows that Oedipus’ patricide and the incestuous relationship is going to be revealed. Sophocles, however, structures the play so that it looks like that no one will ever figure it out. How does Sophocles achieve this? Let’s take a look. The one eyewitness’ account of Laius’ murder is so garbled that they don’t bother to fetch him. At least not right away. So, we’re not going to hear from him. Tiresias, who knows since he’s the prophet, obstructs the investigation. So, we’re not going to hear from him either. Jocaste, who has been warned by the oracle she would give birth to a patricide, tells Oedipus point blank that the oracle must be wrong, since she exposed the child. She doesn’t know that the child survived. So, we’re not going to hear from her. In fact, the evidence against the truth coming out is so overwhelming that the chorus stops dancing in the second stasimon and asks: “Why should I dance?” (896). The gravity of their jarring pronouncement should not be underestimated. Their question would have shocked audiences who knew that the chorus’ role in tragedy isto dance. Tragedy is part of the ancient liturgy and the chorus dances to honour the gods. But if the gods are a fraud—and it’s beginning to look that way because the oracle is just looking plain wrong—why should they honour the gods?

Look: the eyewitness isn’t going to tell them because they didn’t summon him. Not yet. Tiresias isn’t going to tell him. And Jocaste tells him that the oracle dead wrong. If the Delphic oracle is mistaken and the gods can’t be trusted, what’s the point of dancing? Even after the chorus stops dancing, things appear to get even worse: the Corinthian messenger comes out of nowhere to tell Oedipus that he’s inherited the Corinthian throne because his dad Polybus died. This really throws Oedipus into shock: years ago, when the oracle prophesied that he would be a patricide, he had run away from home. And now, he finds out that dad died of natural causes. Things are looking worse and worse for the oracle. It looks like the truth will never come out. But when Oedipus tells the messenger why he left Corinth, the truth finally tumbles out. “Don’t worry about your dad” says the messenger, “he’s not really your dad.” “How do you know this?” “Well I saved you when you were a babe and your real parents had exposed you. You’re actually from Thebes.” “Who are my real parents?” “Well you have to ask the shepherd. He gave me to you.” “Oh, you mean the shepherd that I just summoned?—the one who is the sole surviving witness of Laius’ murder at the crossroads.” “Yes, that’s the one.” See where this is going? What are the odds of a messenger, and not any messenger, but this messenger coming to Thebes at this exact moment? And what are the odds that the shepherd who had saved Oedipus when he was a babe just happens to be the sole surviving witness of Laius’ murder? I’ll tell you: the odds are as likely as Birnam Wood coming to Dunsinane Hill or the madman actually being a god or the Furies being transformed into the Eumenides: it’s a billion to one against. And when it’s a billion to one against, when it happens, it’s dramatic.

Okay, by definition, low-probability events don’t happen very often. But, as we’ve seen, in tragedy, they happen every time. How does the dramatist set up the low-probability event so that it always happens? Do any of you gamble? Then you know, the more you wager, the more things can go wrong, up to the point when you bet everything, anything can go wrong. Lay down the bankroll, leverage yourself up 100:1, go in with all your friends’ and family’s money: if the odds are anything less than perfect, the consequences are huge. Even if the odds are 99.99 percent in your favour, when you go all-in, that 0.01 percent can ruin you. Risk theatre is where that 0.01 percent happens.

The secret of how the dramatist tees up the low-probability, high-consequence risk event is that in tragedy, each dramatic act is also a gambling act. And not any gambling act, but an all-in leveraged up to the gills gambling act. For a chance to be king, Macbeth lays down the milk of human kindness. Like the game of gambling, in tragedy you have to ante up for a chance to play. But unlike the game of gambling, where you lay down cash instruments, in tragedy, you lay down human instruments. For world domination, Faust lays down his soul. For revenge, revengers lay down their humanity. For the American dream, Loman (in Death of a Salesman) lays down his dignity. Pentheus bets everything that the stranger is some bum and not god personified. He lays on the line his authority as king: no bum is going to start seditious rites while he sits on the throne. Oedipus bets that he can outwit the oracle: “You prophecy I’ll kill dad?—I’ll show you! I’m Oedipus, the master riddler. I can solve anything, and I’ll solve you!” And the Furies stake their prerogative as the punishers of blood guilt on the precedence of tradition.

When you lay so much on the line, you expose yourself to low-probability, high-consequence events because you’ve taken up too much risk. For Macbeth, Birnam Wood came. For Loman, he finds out that he’s worth more dead than alive. For Pentheus, the bum happens to be god. And for the Furies, this time was different. Who would have thought?

At the beginning I promised you a myth of tragedy. What I’ve given you is risk theatre, and its framework helps you find your way around tragedy in the same way as constellations light up a road map of the night sky. And just like constellations, risk theatre works brilliantly most of the time. The constellation Orion works great: there’s the shoulders, the belt. But then there’s a constellation like Gemini where you have to squint pretty hard to see Castor and Pollux. And just as you wouldn’t throw out the whole system of constellations because one or two don’t work, you wouldn’t throw out risk theatre for the one or two tragedies that defy it. Ultimately, risk theatre adds to our understanding because it answers the question of how tragedy can be exciting even though spoilers have marred the ending.

Think of tragedy as a theatre of risk where heroes go big or go home. Because heroes make risk run riot with their wagers, think of each dramatic act as a gambling act. When characters stake their souls, allegiances, and reputations, and leverage all their military, social, and political capital to achieve their aims, things get interesting real fast because we see by how they set up their wagers how much they value life. A gallon of milk is worth $4.99, but how much is the milk of human kindness worth?—to Macbeth, it’s worth a Scottish crown, because that’s what he antes up: the milk of human kindness for the crown. Tragedy is an arbiter of life’s value. Think of the tragic emotions not as pity and fear, but rather anticipation and apprehension: anticipation for what the hero wagers and apprehension for the black swan event that’s going to dash the hero, the hero’s friends and family, and the community at large.

Think of the downfall of the hero as something brought about by pure chance rather than a tragic flaw or error. The aged Oedipus, in Sophocles’ final play Oedipus at Colonus, says this exactly: “Okay, when it happened, I thought I had done something wrong, but now, looking back, how else shouldI have acted? Where exactly was my error?—I was dealt a certain hand and I played the game flawlessly.” To blame an Oedipus or a Macbeth or a Pentheus for a tragic flaw is as inane as to blame, say, the Cincinnati Kid for going all-in on the final poker hand against Lancey in Richard Jessup’s novel. He has to play that hand, and it’s only when Lancey makes the most unexpected move that he loses. He could not have known that Lancey would “make the wrong move at the right time.” In the same way, what was Pentheus supposed to do when the seditious foreign stranger waltzes into town: kneel down and worship him? Folks, it’s chance. Not error. Stop looking for error and look instead at the role chance plays. The point of risk theatre is that it enlightens us that chance plays a much larger role in our lives than what we’re comfortable admitting. In tragedy, even fate must work through the mechanisms of chance.

This idea of risk theatre I’ve been developing for over ten years, and I’m very happy to let you know it’s more than theory. Langham Court Theatre, one of the most storied and successful community theatres in Canada, has just now signed on to inaugurate a 2019 Risk Theatre Modern Tragedy Competition. We’re challenging dramatists worldwide to write bold and exciting risk theatre tragedies. We’re giving away over $10,000 in prize money. And we’re going to produce the winning play. Not only this year. Every year. We’re going to reinvent tragedy. The site is at risktheatre.com. Theatre spelled with a –re ending. The site’s not quite live. But I can give you the password: 1974. Take a look. See if you can figure out that poker hand on the illustration.

Here’s a parting thought I’d like to leave you with. I’ve known Peter for a long time. We went to Brown together in the 2000s. He was studying speech patterns in Roman comedy and I was grappling with how tragedy functions. Thank you, Peter for the opportunity to speak today. After Brown, I came back to Canada to take up my old job. You know, by trade, I’m not an academic and not a thespian. I’m a plumber. But I never lost sight of my goal. And despite the long odds, it looks like the goal’s getting closer. And you know the odds are long when the border guard looks at you real funny when you say that you’re speaking on theatre and your occupation is plumbing. So I encourage you all, no matter what your goals are, to chase them down. If I can do it, you can too. Because, you know, if you stay hungry and keep going, despite the long odds, sometimes the low-probability, high-consequence event will work out in your favour. Thank you.

18.05.umass

Low-Probability, High-Consequence Events in Greek Tragedy: Aeschylus’ Seven Against Thebes

Thanks to Professor LB and the Department of Greek and Roman Studies for setting up this seminar. And thanks to all the students and faculty who came out on a cold and snowy Friday afternoon. Great turnout (we packed the conference room) and very receptive audience for this homecoming lecture. Judging from the discussion period that followed the presentation, there’s a sharp band of students at UVic! My old roommate TS from the happy days of UVic undergrad (who’s know Professor TS of English Literature) received a research grant to fly out to hear the talk, so that was extra fun! The core of this presentation was delivered at the APA earlier this year. This version has been revised to take into account the feedback from APA which was: hammer home the point that the gate assignations are random. The preconceived (and likely mistaken) notion that Eteocles decides the assignations remains very strong with readers of the play. If the assignations are random (as I argue), the play is actually quite fun, dramatic, and full of suspense. If the assignations are decided and preordained (as others argue), the play is quite static. Which would you rather have? BTW the image on the poster is from the Exekias Vase and it depicts Achilles and Ajax playing dice. Probably a high-stakes game as they have their spears handy just in case!

Exekias Vase

DEPARTMENT OF GREEK AND ROMAN STUDIES SEMINAR

FRIDAY, FEBRUARY 23 2:30 PM CLEARIHUE B415

 

Low-Probability, High-Consequence Events in Greek Tragedy: Aeschylus’ Seven Against Thebes

 

I present to you a question: does it seem that tragedy in general—not just Greek tragedy—goes out of its way to dramatize low-probability, high-consequence outcomes? Low-probability refers to events are that are unlikely, events that are 1000:1 against, events such as Birnam Wood coming to Dunsinane Hill. In Shakespeare’s play, the witches tell Macbeth that nothing can harm him until Birnam Wood removes to Dunsinane Hill. It’s highly unlikely that the trees will take up their roots and hike up the hill. But when the troops camouflage themselves under Birnam Wood, the high-consequence event unfolds. Macbeth is caught flat-footed. All is lost.

 

We see something similar in Sophocles’ Oedipus rex. The messenger comes out of left field to tell Oedipus that he’s inherited the Corinthian throne, and, oh, by the way, your parents aren’t who you think they are. How do I know that?—well, I saved you when you were a babe and your real parents had exposed you. Who are my real parents?—well, you have to ask the shepherd. What are the odds of a messenger, and not any messenger, but this messenger coming to Thebes at this exact moment? It’s as likely as Birnam Wood coming to Dunsinane Hill. But it happens, and the outcome has high consequences, as Oedipus goes from being a king to an outcast.

 

This presentation is on how tragedy dramatizes low-probability, high-consequence events. But there’s one problem: how do we know that an event in tragedy is unlikely? Something has to happen, and anything that happens is, in a way, unique. How do we quantify the odds of what takes place against what did not take place?

 

Aeschylus’ Seven Against Thebes is the one unique play where it’s possible to quantify the odds of what didn’t happen. In Seven, seven attacking captains lay siege to seven-gated Thebes. One brother, Polyneices, marshals the attack. Inside Thebes, the other brother, Eteocles, coordinates the defence. The worst-case scenario occurs if the brothers meet at the seventh gate. They would shed kindred blood and miasma would result. If they go to different gates, the worst-case scenario is averted. Or, if they find themselves at a gate prior to the seventh gate, Eteocles could substitute another captain in his place. But the worst-case scenario occurs if they’re both at the final gate, as substitutions are no longer possible.

 

With seven gates, seven attackers, and seven defenders, what are the odds of the worst-case scenario? Let’s look at this this way. What are the odds of rolling a six on a six-sided die? There’re six equally probable outcomes, so the answer is 1:6. Now what are the odds of rolling two sixes? The outcome of two independent rolls is the product of their individual probabilities. 1:6*1:6=1:36. Now, if there are seven gates, and the assignations are random, there’s a 1:7 chance that Eteocles goes to the seventh gate. The odds of Polyneices going there are the same, 1:7. So we multiply the odds together and find that, the odds of the worst-case scenario is 1:49. Now, what are the odds of the worst-case scenario not happening? The answer is 48 out of 49 times. See how Aeschylus doesn’t dramatize the likely scenario, but rather the worst-case scenario which is 48:1 against. Thanks to Seven, we can quantify how tragedy goes out of its way to deliberately dramatize low-probability, high-consequence events.

 

But—how do we know that the process of assigning gates to the attackers is random? Easy. The scout tells us:

 

As I was leaving

they were casting lots (klhroumevnou~), each to divine by fortune

against which of our gates he would lead his battalions (77-9, trans. Hecht & Bacon)

 

Since the attackers draw lots, it stands that Polyneices’ chance of going to the seventh gate is 1:7. How do we know that the process of assigning gates to the defenders is random? That’s harder. It’s not explicit. Eteocles tells us at the conclusion of the first episode that:

 

I will go and assign six men, myself the seventh,

all fully armed oarsmen,

against the champions at the seven exit-points of the city. (357-60)

 

Now, when he says that he “will assign six men, myself the seventh” he doesn’t necessarily mean he’s stationing himself at the seventh gate. So why say this odd phrase?—“assign six men, myself the seventh.” I like Roisman’s explanation: “it is an image of bad luck, since the number 6 + 1 [in dice games] was considered an unlucky throw.”[1] I want to seize and expand this point. There’s something ludic about this play; it exudes a sort of gambling hall or lottery atmosphere. We’ve already talked about how the attackers draw lots and the unlucky 6 + 1 gambling reference. Let’s add to this. For instance, Eteocles remarks as he dispatches Melanippus to face Tydeus that: “The chances of battle are as dice (kuvboi~) in the hands of Ares (511).” What other gaming references are there? Well, when Eteocles interprets the matchup between Hippomedon and Hyperbius, he says: “Hermes, by divine reason, has matched this pair (624).” Hermes, as Hecht and Bacon note, is invoked in his capacity as the god of luck and fortunate coincidence. Finally, the scout tells us after the brothers die that “they have shared out by lot (dievlacon) their full inheritance (1039).” The lottery image, along with the ship of state image, are the two dominant metaphors of this play. Because of the lottery imagery, I’m convinced that a random process must be involved in how Eteocles assigns the defenders. After all, why would he say that “Hermes, by divine reason, has matched this pair” unless they were brought together under Hermes’ tutelage as the god of lots? And why would the scout say that the brothers “have shared out by lot their full inheritance” unless a lottery process was involved in the assignations?

 

I want to share with you that Seven was the first Greek tragedy I read. When I first read it, I thought for sure that Eteocles decides the assignations on the spot, during the shield scene itself. The scout would report and he would say: “Oh, I just have the right guy to neutralize him.” In hindsight, that’s a very modern reading as that’s how a general would decide today. But how would this fit in with the lottery images? It doesn’t. Later I read Zeitlin’s Under the Sign of the Shield where she points out that Eteocles clearly says he’s going to decide the assignations before he meets the scout.[2] But then I thought: “Eteocles decides?—then what’s the point of all the lottery and gambling images?” Then I heard Weckler and Wilamowitz’ argument that some assignations are done before, and some during. While this solves the problem of the tenses, as during the shield scene sometimes Eteocles says “I shall station,” and at other times “He has been chosen,” it seems unnecessarily complicated. Because of the lottery references, I was ready to say that Eteocles decides by lot before he meets the scout. But when I recently read Herrmann’s conjecture, I was immediately convinced: he conjectures that Eteocles decides by lot during the shield scene itself.[3] Herrmann’s conjecture is brilliant. When Eteocles says that he’s going to assign the men before the scout comes, he’s putting their names in the helmet. As for the tenses, as he picks up the lot he can be saying “I will appoint” or “He has been already appointed.” Furthermore, Herrmann’s conjecture gives Eteocles something dramatic to do during the shield scene and, what is more, it means that, the defender assignations, like the attacker assignations, are random. Because all the assignations are random, all the possible matchups at each of the gates exist only as a probability until the moment when the lots are drawn. Because all the outcomes exist as probabilities, we can quantify the exact odds of what takes place against what did take place to verify how tragedy engages audiences with low-probability, high-consequence scenarios.

 

Could Aeschylus and his audience have worked out that the worst-case scenario is averted 48 out of 49 times? No. Sambursky, a historian of science, finds that the lack of both algebraic notation and systematic experimentation held the Greeks back from discovering the laws of probability.[4] The laws of probability would not develop until Cardano starts counting up the number of throws possible with dice two millennia later. But we know that the Greeks were able to understand the concept, if not the math of combinatorial analyses. Xenocrates, for example, mistakenly calculates that, by mixing together the letters of the alphabet, 1,002,000 unique syllables are possible.[5] Despite not being able to compute the exact odds, Aeschylus and his audience would have recognized that the odds of the brothers meeting at the highest gate was an exceedingly low-probability affair.

 

Besides the objective remoteness of the worst-case scenario, what subjective cues give Eteocles hope things will go his way? First, there’s the enemy’s disarray. Their morale is so low that they’re already dedicating memorial tokens to send back home. One of their captains says outright that he’s going to die. They also attack before their seer gives the signal. And there’s infighting between their captains. Contrast this with the improving morale of the chorus of Theban women, who function as a barometer of morale within the city: they start off in panic, but by the first stasimon, Eteocles wins them over. Many indications give Eteocles subjective hope.

 

The surest indication that things will go his way comes in the shield scene. In the shield scene, the scout describes, gate by gate, the attacking captain’s appearance, demeanor, and shield device. Eteocles, in turn, draws the lot to determine the defender and interprets the tale of the tape. Since chance is a reflection of god’s will, you can tell from the random matchups which side heaven favours. In the game of knucklebones, for example, rolling the Aphrodite throw (1, 3, 4, and 6) was considered a propitious sign from the goddess. So, to make up an example, if the bad guy carries a brutal monster on his shield, and your guy happens to be carrying a shield depicting a peasant farmer, that’s heaven telling you: “Your guy’s going to die.” So, how do the matchups work out? Well, in aggregate, the matchups overwhelmingly favour Eteocles. For example, the attacker at the fourth gate sports a Typhon device and he happens to be matched up against the defender bearing the Zeus shield: in myth Zeus had tamed Typhon. Or, as it happens, the attacker at the first gate who shouts out impieties is matched up with a defender who just happens to be “a noble man who honours the throne of Reverence (503).” So, gate by gate, as Eteocles sees the matchups unfolding, he grows more confident.

 

Objectively, the worst-case case scenario is buried deep in the odds. Subjectively, everything’s going his way. He’s unified the city. The matchups look better and better. But what’s happening? The odds of the worst-case scenario go up gate by gate each time the brothers’ lots don’t come up. At the first gate, the worst-case odds are 1:49. At the second gate, they go up to 1:36. By the sixth gate, they’ve escalated to 1:4. See what’s happening? Paradoxically, as he becomes more confident, he’s actually in greater danger, till the point when he’s most confident, at that point he’s in the greatest danger. Even as the situation becomes subjectively better, objectively things are becoming much worse. At the sixth gate, with his cheeks flush with the glow of wine and his hair all but adorned in ivy, as he dispatches Lasthenes to confront Amphiaraus, he seals his own doom in a stunning twist of fate. When the scout announces Polyneices stands at the seventh gate, the low-probability, high-consequence event comes to pass. The event was objectively low-probability because the odds that it happens is 48:1 against. The event was subjectively low-probability because everything was going his way. Tragedy is an engine that makes even foredoomed outcomes exciting by discounting the odds of the inevitable taking place.

 

I think these low-probability, high-consequence events are commonplace throughout tragedy. Take Sophocles’ Oedipus rex. Like Eteocles, Oedipus has played his hand well. Everything’s going his way. “Don’t worry,” says the Corinthian messenger, “you’re really not from Corinth. You’re going to be king of two cities.” At the point of maximum confidence, the low-probability, high-consequence event happens and Oedipus loses all. Or take Shakespeare’s Macbeth. Like Eteocles, Macbeth has played his hand well. “Nothing can harm you,” say the witches. At the point of maximum confidence, the low-probability, high-consequence event unfolds: Birnam Wood. Can you see a general trend?—at the point of maximum confidence, an unexpected, low-probability event unfolds with high consequences.

 

This way of looking at tragedy I call risk theatre. To me, tragedy’s function is to warn us that at our point of maximum confidence, we are, paradoxically, in the gravest danger. In this way, tragedy speaks to our confident age, an age of both great risk and great reward. While I was writing this, an article appeared in Wired magazine on November 16 on gene editing.[6] In the US, the entomologist Akbari is working on a gene drive, a way to supercharge evolution by forcing a genetic modification to spread through an entire population. With the gene drive, he can take flight away from mosquitoes and vanquish malaria—promising, of course, minimal disruption to ecosystems. And on November 17, USA Today reported that in Italy, Doctor Canavero was getting ready to do the world’s first head transplant on a human being.[7] What could go wrong?—they had already done the procedure on a dog. Akbari and Canavero are confident, and have the best-laid plans. But so did Oedipus, Eteocles, and Macbeth. In today’s technological age of manufactured risk, tragedy ought to and should be seen as a theatre of risk, as we moderns have a moral obligation to come to terms with the low-probability, high-consequence ramifications of our actions. And what better place to explore these than through drama? We emerge from risk theatre with eyes wide open. And I think, if you look at tragedy as a theatre of risk, it will guide you well because you’ll be better apprised that the things that hurt you come where you least expect. I’ll finish by saying that I’ve written a book on risk theatre and that I’m in high-level talks with theatres to produce new tragedies based on this exciting concept. Thank you for listening, and I welcome your feedback on risk theatre, the theatre that guarantees low-probability outcomes, every time.

 

Edwin Wong

edwinclwong@gmail.com

[1] Roisman, Hanna M. “The Messenger and Eteocles in the Seven against Thebes,” in L’antiquité classique, vol. 59, 1990, 22.

[2] Zeitlin, Froma I., Under the Sign of the Shield, 45.

[3] Herrmann, Fritz-Gregor, “Eteocles’ Decision in Aeschylus’ Seven against Thebes, in Tragedy and Archaic Greek Thought, ed. Douglas Cairns, Swansea: Classical Press of Wales, 2013, 58ff.

[4] Sambursky, “On the Possible and the Probable in Ancient Greece,” Osiris 12 (1956) 35-48.

[5] Plutarch, Quaestiones convivales 733a.

[6] Molteni, Megan, “This Gene-Editing Tech Might be too Dangerous to Unleash,” Wired, November 16, 2017.

[7] Hjelmgaard, Kim, “Italian Doctor Says World’s First Human Head Transplant ‘Imminent’,” USA Today, November 17, 2017.

Low-Probability, High-Consequence Events in Greek Tragedy: A Look at Aeschylus’ Seven Against Thebes

2018 Society for Classical Studies Annual Meeting (Boston)

Session 9: Agency in Drama (Presided by Helene Foley)

 

Low-Probability, High-Consequence Events in Greek Tragedy: A Look at Aeschylus’ Seven Against Thebes

 

I present to you a question: does it seem that tragedy in general—not just Greek tragedy—goes out of its way to dramatize low-probability, high-consequence outcomes? Low-probability refers to events are that are unlikely, events that are 1000:1 against, events such as Birnam Wood coming to Dunsinane Hill. In Shakespeare’s play, the witches tell Macbeth that nothing can harm him until Birnam Wood removes to Dunsinane Hill. It’s highly unlikely that the trees will take up their roots and hike up the hill. But when the troops camouflage themselves under Birnam Wood, the high-consequence event unfolds. Macbeth is caught flat-footed. All is lost.

 

We see something similar in Sophocles’ Oedipus rex. The messenger comes out of left field to tell Oedipus that he’s inherited the Corinthian throne, and, oh, by the way, your parents aren’t who you think they are. How do I know that?—well, I saved you when you were a babe and your real parents had exposed you. Who are my real parents?—well, you have to ask the shepherd. What are the odds of a messenger, and not any messenger, but this messenger coming to Thebes at this exact moment? It’s as likely as Birnam Wood coming to Dunsinane Hill. But it happens, and the outcome has high consequences, as Oedipus goes from being a king to an outcast.

 

This presentation is on how tragedy dramatizes the risk of low-probability, high-consequence events. But there’s one problem: how do we know that an event in tragedy is unlikely? I mean, something has to happen, and anything that happens is, in a way, unique. How do we quantify the odds of what takes place against what did not take place? We need a play where we can see this.

 

In Aeschylus’ Seven Against Thebes it’s possible to quantify the odds of what didn’t happen. In Seven, seven attacking captains lay siege to seven-gated Thebes. One brother, Polyneices, marshals the attack. Inside Thebes, the other brother, Eteocles, coordinates the defence. The worst-case scenario occurs if the brothers meet at the seventh gate. They would shed kindred blood and miasma would result. If they go to different gates, the worst-case scenario is averted. Or, if they find themselves at a gate prior to the seventh gate, Eteocles could substitute another captain in his place. But the worst-case scenario occurs if they’re both at the final gate, as substitutions are no longer possible.

 

With seven gates, seven attackers, and seven defenders, what are the odds of the worst-case scenario? Let’s look at this this way. What are the odds of rolling a six on a six-sided die? There’re six equally probable outcomes, so the answer is 1:6. Now what are the odds of rolling two sixes? The outcome of two independent rolls is the product of their individual probabilities. 1:6*1:6=1:36. Now, if there are seven gates, and the assignations are random, there’s a 1:7 chance that Eteocles goes to the seventh gate. The odds of Polyneices going there are the same, 1:7. So we multiply the odds together and find that, the odds of the worst-case scenario is 1:49. Now, what are the odds of the worst-case scenario not happening? The answer is 48 out of 49 times. See how Aeschylus doesn’t dramatize the likely scenario, but rather the worst-case scenario which is 48:1 against. Thanks to Seven, we can quantify how tragedy goes out of its way to deliberately dramatize low-probability, high-consequence events.

 

But—how do we know that the process of assigning gates to the attackers is random? Easy. The scout tells us:

 

As I was leaving

they were casting lots (klhroumevnou~), each to divine by fortune

against which of our gates he would lead his battalions (77-9, trans. Hecht & Bacon)

 

Since the attackers draw lots, it stands that Polyneices’ chance of going to the seventh gate is 1:7. How do we know that the process of assigning gates to the defenders is random? That’s harder. It’s not explicit. Eteocles tells us at the conclusion of the first episode that:

 

I will go and assign six men, myself the seventh,

all fully armed oarsmen,

against the champions at the seven exit-points of the city. (357-60)

 

Now, when he says that he “will assign six men, myself the seventh” he doesn’t necessarily mean he’s stationing himself at the seventh gate. So why say this odd phrase?—“assign six men, myself the seventh.” I like Roisman’s explanation: “it is an image of bad luck, since the number 6 + 1 [in dice games] was considered an unlucky throw.”[1] I want to seize and expand this point. There’s something ludic about this play; it exudes a sort of gambling hall or lottery atmosphere. We’ve already talked about how the attackers draw lots and the unlucky 6 + 1 gambling reference. Let’s add to this. For instance, Eteocles remarks as he dispatches Melanippus to face Tydeus that: “The chances of battle are as dice (kuvboi~) in the hands of Ares (511).” What other gaming references are there? Well, when Eteocles interprets the matchup between Hippomedon and Hyperbius, he says: “Hermes, by divine reason, has matched this pair (624).” Hermes, as Hecht and Bacon note, is invoked in his capacity as the god of luck and fortunate coincidence. Finally, the scout tells us after the brothers die that “they have shared out by lot (dievlacon) their full inheritance (1039).” The lottery image, along with the ship of state image, are the two dominant metaphors of this play. Because of all these lottery images, I’m convinced that a random process must be involved in how Eteocles assigns the defenders. After all, why would he say that “Hermes, by divine reason, has matched this pair” unless they were brought together under Hermes’ tutelage as the god of lots? And why would the scout say that the brothers “have shared out by lot their full inheritance” unless a lottery process was involved in the assignations?

 

I want to share with you that Seven was the first Greek tragedy I read. When I first read it, I thought for sure that Eteocles decides the assignations on the spot, during the shield scene itself. The scout would report and he would say: “Oh, I just have the right guy to neutralize him.” In hindsight, that’s a very modern reading as that’s probably how a general would decide today. But how would this fit in with the lottery images? It doesn’t. Later I read Zeitlin’s Under the Sign of the Shield where she points out that Eteocles clearly says he’s going to decide the assignations before he meets the scout.[2] But then I thought: “Eteocles decides?—then what’s the point of all the lottery and gambling images?” Then I heard Weckler and Wilamowitz’ argument that some assignations are done before, and some during. While this solves the problem of the tenses, as during the shield scene sometimes Eteocles says “I shall station,” and at other times “He has been chosen,” it seems unnecessarily complicated. Because of the lottery references, I was ready to say that Eteocles decides by lot before he meets the scout. But when I recently read Herrmann’s conjecture, I was immediately convinced: he conjectures that Eteocles decides by lot during the shield scene itself.[3] Herrmann’s conjecture is brilliant. When Eteocles says that he’s going to assign the men before the scout comes, he’s putting their names in the helmet. As for the tenses, as he picks up the lot he can be saying “I will appoint” or “He has been already appointed.” Furthermore, Herrmann’s conjecture gives Eteocles something dramatic to do during the shield scene and, what is more, it means that, the defender assignations, like the attacker assignations, are random.

 

Could Aeschylus and his audience have worked out that the worst-case scenario is averted 48 out of 49 times? No. Sambursky, a historian of science, finds that the lack of both algebraic notation and systematic experimentation held the Greeks back from discovering the laws of probability.[4] The laws of probability would not develop until Cardano starts counting up the number of throws possible with dice two millennia later. But we know that the Greeks were able to understand the concept, if not the math of combinatorial analyses. Xenocrates, for example, mistakenly calculates that, by mixing together the letters of the alphabet, 1,002,000 unique syllables are possible.[5] Despite not being able to compute the exact odds, Aeschylus and his audience would have recognized that the odds of the brothers meeting at the highest gate was an exceedingly low-probability affair.

 

Besides the objective remoteness of the worst-case scenario, what subjective cues give Eteocles hope things will go his way? First, there’s the enemy’s disarray. Their morale is so low that they’re already dedicating memorial tokens to send back home. One of their captains says outright that he’s going to die. They also attack before their seer gives the signal. And there’s infighting between their captains. Contrast this with the improving morale of the chorus of Theban women, who function as a barometer of morale within the city: they start off in panic, but by the first stasimon, Eteocles wins them over. Many indications give Eteocles subjective hope.

 

The surest indication that things will go his way comes in the shield scene. In the shield scene, the scout describes, gate by gate, the attacking captain’s appearance, demeanor, and shield device. Eteocles, in turn, draws the lot to determine the defender and interprets the tale of the tape. Since chance is a reflection of god’s will, you can tell from the random matchups which side heaven favours. In the game of knucklebones, for example, rolling the Aphrodite throw (1, 3, 4, and 6) was considered a propitious sign from the goddess. So, to make up an example, if the bad guy carries a brutal monster on his shield, and your guy happens to be carrying a shield depicting a peasant farmer, that’s heaven telling you: “Your guy’s going to die.” So, how do the matchups work out? Well, in aggregate, the matchups overwhelmingly favour Eteocles. For example, the attacker at the fourth gate sports a Typhon device and he happens to be matched up against the defender bearing the Zeus shield: in myth Zeus had tamed Typhon. Or, as it happens, the attacker at the first gate who shouts out impieties is matched up with a defender who just happens to be “a noble man who honours the throne of Reverence (503).” So, gate by gate, as Eteocles sees the matchups unfolding, he grows more confident.

 

Objectively, the worst-case case scenario is buried deep in the odds. Subjectively, everything’s going his way. He’s unified the city. The matchups look better and better. But what’s happening? The odds of the worst-case scenario go up gate by gate each time the brothers’ lots don’t come up. At the first gate, the worst-case odds are 1:49. At the second gate, they go up to 1:36. By the sixth gate, they’ve escalated to 1:4. See what’s happening? Paradoxically, as he becomes more confident, he’s actually in greater danger, till the point when he’s most confident, at that point he’s in the greatest danger. That’s the genius of Seven: even as the situation becomes subjectively better, objectively things are becoming much worse. At the sixth gate, with his cheeks flush with the glow of wine and his hair all but adorned in ivy, as he dispatches Lasthenes to confront Amphiaraus, he seals his own doom in a stunning twist of fate. When the scout announces Polyneices stands at the seventh gate, the low-probability, high-consequence event comes to pass. The event was objectively low-probability because the odds that it happens is 48:1 against. The event was subjectively low-probability because everything was going his way. By combining subjective and objective probabilities, Aeschylus spring loads the low-probability event so that when it takes place, we feel its impact.

 

I think these low-probability, high-consequence events are commonplace all over tragedy. Take Sophocles’ Oedipus rex. Like Eteocles, Oedipus has played his hand well. Everything’s going his way. “Don’t worry,” says the Corinthian messenger, “you’re really not from Corinth. You’re going to be king of two cities.” At the point of maximum confidence, the low-probability, high-consequence event happens and Oedipus loses all. Or take Shakespeare’s Macbeth. Like Eteocles, Macbeth has played his hand well. “Nothing can harm you,” say the witches. At the point of maximum confidence, the low-probability, high-consequence event unfolds: Birnam Wood. Can you see a general trend?—at the point of maximum confidence, an unexpected, low-probability event unfolds with high consequences.

 

This way of looking at tragedy I call risk theatre. Tragedy warns us, that at our point of maximum confidence, we are, paradoxically, in the gravest danger. I think that tragedy speaks to our confident age, an age of both great risk and great reward. While I was writing this, an article appeared in Wired magazine on November 16 on gene editing.[6] Here in the US the entomologist Akbari is working on a gene drive, a way to supercharge evolution by forcing a genetic modification to spread through an entire population. With the gene drive, he can take flight away from mosquitoes and vanquish malaria—promising, of course, minimal disruption to ecosystems. And on November 17, USA Today reported that in Italy, Doctor Canavero was getting ready to do the world’s first head transplant on a human being.[7] What could go wrong?—they had already done one on a dog. Akbari and Canavero are confident, and have the best-laid plans. But so did Oedipus, Eteocles, and Macbeth. I look at tragedy as a theatre of risk because such an interpretation speaks to our technological age of manufactured risk. In such an age, I believe that we have a moral obligation to come to terms with low-probability, high-consequence events. And what better place to explore these than through drama? We emerge from risk theatre with eyes wide open. And I think, if you look at tragedy as a theatre of risk, it will guide you well because you’ll be better apprised that the things that hurt you come where you least expect. I’ll finish by saying that I’ve written a book on risk theatre and that I’m in high-level talks with theatres in Victoria, Canada to produce new tragedies based on this exciting concept. The goal to start a new art movement in tragedy. Thank you for listening, and I welcome your feedback on risk theatre, the theatre that guarantees low-probability outcomes, every time.

 

Edwin Wong

2018-01-05

[1] Roisman, Hanna M. “The Messenger and Eteocles in the Seven against Thebes,” in L’antiquité classique, vol. 59, 1990, 22.

[2] Zeitlin, Froma I., Under the Sign of the Shield, 45.

[3] Herrmann, Fritz-Gregor, “Eteocles’ Decision in Aeschylus’ Seven against Thebes, in Tragedy and Archaic Greek Thought, ed. Douglas Cairns, Swansea: Classical Press of Wales, 2013, 58ff.

[4] Sambursky, “On the Possible and the Probable in Ancient Greece,” Osiris 12 (1956) 35-48.

[5] Plutarch, Quaestiones convivales 733a.

[6] Molteni, Megan, “This Gene-Editing Tech Might be too Dangerous to Unleash,” Wired, November 16, 2017.

[7] Hjelmgaard, Kim, “Italian Doctor Says World’s First Human Head Transplant ‘Imminent’,” USA Today, November 17, 2017.

Society for Classical Studies 2018 Presentation

The Harmony of Fixed Fate and Free Will in the Iliad

How many assiduous readers have read Homer.s Iliad? If you have, you might remember Achilles and his peculiar fates: if he continues the fight at Troy, he will die an untimely death yet live on in song forevermore. But if he returns home, he will live to a ripe old age but his fame will be forgotten. He chooses to fight the good fight. But what sort of choice is this if it.s fated? And really, if he takes off, we wouldn.t have the story of the Iliad–surely that.s not allowed! That.s not the only peculiar instance of fate and free will in the Iliad. Readers with good memories will also recall Zeus’ predicament when Sarpedon.s fated moment to die arrives: does he save his son or can he circumvent fate? Like a wily politician, Zeus sidesteps the issue: he pulls out his golden scales. Sarpedon.s lot sinks. So he dies. But hey, it.s not Zeus’ fault–the scales did it! Zeus says that he could have averted his son.s death. But really, could he have?

These, and other scenes where fate and free will come to head lead to two questions. First: how fixed is fate? And second: how free is free will in the Iliad? I examine these questions in the piece The Harmony of Fixed Fate and Free Will in the Iliad, published by Antichthon in 2002. Ultimately, the conflict between fate and free will is likened to a chess endgame. The article is in PDF form so I.ve downloaded a plugin called ‘PDF Embedder’ so that it can be embedded into the post. Scroll down, it should be visible. Second option is to click on ‘iliad.fate.free.will’ below and see if the PDF downloads. Then you can just read it in your PDF viewer instead of the Mickey Mouse viewer built into the blog. It seems WordPress doesn.t like to play nice with embedded PDFs all the time, so if you.re still having hard time viewing, send me an email and I.ll attach the PDF in the happy reply.

Special bonus: for those of you who like to play chess, check out the the last page. There.s an endgame scenario that can be played out illustrating the harmony between fixed fate and free will using an actual chess endgame mapped onto Hector.s last stand with Achilles! Here.s a sneak preview of the endgame scenario, full instructions and blow-by-blow commentary in the article:

Endgame Iliad

Endgame Iliad

Publishing this article was an extremely positive experience, as the editor of Antichthon at the time, Harold Tarrant, happened to be a chess aficionado!

iliad.fate_.free_.will_

iliad.fate.free.will

Until next time, I.m Edwin Wong and I am, as always, Doing Melpomene’s Work. Happy reading and may the fates be with you!